Letter from the Editor

Monday, July 23, 2007

No cure for this child death tragedy

Oh my God... you awake from a tired funk with a start, in a cold sweat. The kids - where are the kids... You intended to just shut your eyes for a moment...

Or, you realize with a jolt in a big store or a crowded place, while you were concentrating on what you were there to do for just a moment, your young child must have slipped away. You look around franctically, and can't see him or her... why weren't you holding their hand, like you always do...

Or, you are driving home at night, dog tired from being up with a fussy baby all night. You know you are hazy, but you are sure you can make it. Your eyes fly open when the wheel strays toward the gravel shoulder... oh no, your baby is in the back seat!

Thank God, in almost all cases, the tragedy never happens.

Your child is tucked right in bed where you had put them. Your child is found safe and sound in the toy department one aisle over. You pull your car over, and your child is still blissfully asleep in the safety seat.

I wonder if any of these scenarios sound familiar to any other parents. The panic that rises in a person's throat when you feel your child may be at risk is the most unspeakable of emotions.

They sound all too familiar to me. For that reason, I'm not going to join all those people condemning Noe Vargas, not just yet.

You will remember that 18-year-old Vargas was allegedly responsible for the death of his 2-year-old nephew in Storm Lake recently. His mother put the child in the teenager's care, and when the toddler crawled into the mother's car on a sweltering day, Noe Vargas reportedly forgot about the little boy, walked home, and the child died in the car where he was left for hours.

It is an unthinkable tragedy.

The first reaction is that the teenager must pay a dire penalty for his immature failure to care for the child. Any time a tragedy touches us, it seems, the automatic response is vengeance, to the max.

Noe Vargas was jailed, and his bail jacked up to a quarter of a million dollars, for fear he might bolt.

Hearings have been delayed, and we have yet to hear any real explanation of what happened that day. Is he a risk to hurt others?

Imaginations run wild. I have heard people suggest the teen must have been on drugs to simply walk away and forget a child for an entire day. For all we know, however, he could have intended to come right back, but fell asleep or became preoccupied and overlooked the child purely by accident.

Some in the local media have had a field day detailing the troubles of other members of the family and the immigrant status of the teen, which really have little to do with the fact that a child was left in a hot car. As I recall, that was the issue.

I find it almost impossible to believe that such an act could be intentional. I would pray that a mother would not dump a child in the care of someone they know is not capable of providing it, or that a teen could knowingly allow a young relative to die. I may be naive, but I want to hear an explanation before I judge.

Throwing that teen into prison for potentially many years, or charging and prosecuting the mother, is not going to bring that innocent 2-year-old, Steven, back. My thoughts may change as I hear more of the evidence and circumstances, but for now, I'm not sure lengthy prosecutions would achieve anything.

Surely, Noe Vargas has paid an incredible price already, knowing what he has done, and having to live with it for the rest of his life. Surely, the family has suffered more misery than our court system could ever hope to impose.

The issue is drawing much controversy around the state. A Des Moines Register chat blog has become as long as your arm.

"I am not saying what the kid did wasn't irresponsible or reckless but the fact is that this was an accident and condemning this man will not change a thing," one reader writes. "Sending him to jail will only continue to overfill a jail population that is already stuffed with criminals that don't really deserve to be locked away... there are always people screaming for someone to be held responsible and that person to be burned at the cross."

Another argues, "...it really dosen't matter if you forgot about or intentionally left a kid in a sweltering hot car, it is negligence and murder... I think that in this case the nephew should get murder charges and the parents should get the negligence charges..."

Many are comparing the case to that of Kari Engholm, who was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and neglect in 2001 after the Perry hospital administrator who forgot her 7-month-old daughter in the minivan all day after going to work on a similarly sweltering day.

Some bloggers suggest that Vargas, as a Mexican immigrant with limited education, no resources and a court appointed lawyer, is much less likely to get off with no penalty than was a highly respected white executive.

Will people really view the cases so differently because of the social standing of the two accused persons? I hope not. Again, we need to hear the whole story before we make our conclusions.

Sadly, this tragedy is not all that unusual. Officials say that at least 31 such child deaths in hot cars have been reported in the U.S. every year since 1998, most of them due to caregiver fogetfulness. I've heard reports over the scanner of children left in cars outside Storm Lake stores. A 2006 study concluded that sensors should be installed in new cars to prevent such incidents.

It should be illegal as hell, I think, to leave a child alone in an unattended car, any time, just as it is to drive without a child in a proper car seat. Nothing good can come of it.

We don't need alarms and sensors, people, we need parents who are focused on their children, all the time. Let this awful tragedy be a warning to us all. Accidents can happen, but if you see a child alone in a vehicle, call the cops. For those incapable of caring for a child, we may have to do this the hard way.