When a Child Dies

“Fatal Distraction” — The Washington Post

“Any writer who claims to be completely unbiased is lying either to you or to himself,” Gene Weingarten wrote in an on-line blog that accompanied his 2009 article, “Fatal Distraction.”

On the topic of parents forgetting their young children in hot cars, Weingarten freely admits he was totally biased — and overwhelmingly empathetic.

“I believed it could happen to anyone, and I believe that because it almost happened to me. Twenty-five years ago, I almost killed my daughter,” he wrote.

Knock on wood, Molly Weingarten is alive and well — a grown woman whose dog-loving dad beams when mentioning that she's a veterinarian. But when Molly was a toddler in Miami, Weingarten forgot that she was riding in his back seat when he was supposed to take her to day care. He drove all the way to work and would have left her trapped in the hot car outside his newsroom if she hadn't woken from a nap and spoke up when the car stopped. Weingarten, now a longtime Washington Post columnist, has relived that moment a thousand times. To this day, the what-if's and but-for's still haunt him.

“I'm pretty sure that, if she had died, I would have run in front of a bus immediately,” he says.

That's what came to mind in 2008 when The Post published a news story about the death of 21-month-old Chase Harrison. Weingarten began wondering about Chase's dad, Miles Harrison, and all the other parents, grandparents and caregivers who live with the emotional wreckage of forgetting children in hot cars.

“My goal was to convince people that these cases are accidents, terrible accidents, to let it be known that these parents aren't monsters and to raise awareness so it happens less often,” Weingarten says.

He was intent on keeping his topic narrow — only child hyperthermia cases that were pure accidents. He purposely avoided any cases that even vaguely touched on abuse or patterns of neglect.

Approaching parents was the most difficult reporting he has ever done. “A typical moment was when I reached a dentist in Boca Raton, Fla. He is a very cordial man. When I told him why I was calling, there was a 10 second pause. Then he said, 'I'm sorry, I am shaking and feeling cold and faint',” Weingarten recalled in his blog.

There are details in “Fatal Distraction” that are extremely vivid, raw, even harsh. The article begins with the description of Miles Harrison's obesity as he sat, weighted with heaviness, in a courtroom on trial for his son's death. Later in the story comes a detail that's indelible for anyone who has read it — the horrific description of a child who pulled out her hair while dying a slow, hot death trapped in a hot car. Weingarten toes lines that some reporters, especially less experienced ones, may avoid. This is apparent in his description of Lyn Balfour, the anti-hero of “Fatal Distraction” who accidentally killed her 9-month-old son, Bryce. The Army reservist's propensity for multi-tasking and her tendency always to be “in battle” help show, not tell, how a mom juggling several responsibilities at once could forget her kid in her car. Weingarten channels those complexities in this paragraph: “It's mid-October. Lyn Balfour is on her cellphone, ordering a replacement strap for a bouncy seat for the new baby and simultaneously trying to arrange for an emergency sitter, because she has to get to the fertility clinic, pronto, because she just got lab results back, and she's ovulating, and her husband's in Iraq, and she wants to get artificially inseminated with his sperm, like right now, but, crap, the sitter is busy, so she grabs the kid and the keys and the diaper bag and is out the door and in the car and gone. But now the baby is fussing, so she's reaching back to give him a bottle of juice, one eye on him and the other on a seemingly endless series of hairpin turns that she negotiates adroitly.”

“We need to believe these parents are monsters because it's too uncomfortable for most of us to acknowledge that it could happen to us.”

Ever the wise-cracker in his column, Weingarten leaves room for levity, irony and bite in a story about unspeakable tragedy. Take, for example, the bit about the memory expert with the lousy memory. And the explanation about why sensor devices don't sell. And the inclusion of rabid on-line reader comments responding to the first news story about Chase Harrison's death. Those comments have a way of mirroring our own outrage about hyperthermia cases, and forcing us to examine our own haste to judge.

“We need to believe these parents are monsters because it's too uncomfortable for most of us to acknowledge that it could happen to us,” Weingarten says.

Ultimately, “Fatal Distraction” is at once a story about stress and a treatise about empathy. It answers the question “What kind of person could kill a baby?” by giving voice to the daily preoccupations of busy working parents juggling their kids, their jobs and their households. They are, after all, just like many of us.

Weingarten won a Pulitzer for the article. Still, having set out to save babies with his story, he feels in some ways that he has failed. Kids keep dying in hot cars at the same rates they did before his project. There are limits to what journalists can accomplish, no matter how many inches their editors give them, how exquisitely they write or how many awards they may win, deservedly.

“I guess we're naïve, us journalists. We want to change the world,” he says. “When we don't, it bugs us. It bugs me. It bugs me a lot.”