Uncle released after child death

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Few states have laws preventing children from being left in cars

A Storm Lake teenager was released from jail Monday night after a grand jury returned a decision refusing to indict Noe Vargas-Vera in the death of his 2-year-old nephew who had been left unattended in a hot car. It was the fourth such hypothermia death in a vehicle in Iowa since 2000.

Vargas-Vera, a native of Guanajuato, Mexico who had moved to Storm Lake in June, spent exactly one month in a Cherokee jail cell. The 18-year-old was charged with felony child endangerment, and could have faced up to 50 years in prison.

Police say Vargas-Vera picked up his nephew, Steven Saavedra, at his home and planned to walk the child to his residence nearby. The child's mother usually worked a late shift at Tyson Foods, but was reportedly home sick. The child wanted to get into his mother's car in a parking lot, and Vargas -Vera apparently proceeded to walk home, forgetting about the child.

When the child's mother, Cecilia Vargas, came looking for him that evening, the boy's body was discovered. Police say the temperature in Storm Lake had reached 88 degrees on that early July day. In such conditions, temperatures in a closed car can reach an estimated 130 degrees.

After the grand jury declined the indictment in a report to Judge Don E. Courtney Monday afternoon, the court issued an order discharging Vargas-Vera and assessing no court costs. He returned to his home in Storm Lake.

The teenager's attorney contends that the death was "a horrible accident," and that Vargas-Vera never intended any harm to his nephew.

It is not unusual for defendants in such cases to escape prosecution. Since 1998, charges have been filed in 49 percent of cases in which a relative or caregiver have caused the death of a child in a hot vehicle. In those cases that have been decided, 81 percent resulted in convictions, but only half of those decisions brought jail sentences - with the median sentence being two years.

In many cases where children were left by accident, and drugs or alcohol abuse were not contributing factors, juries have tended to suggest that families have suffered enough.

There will be no public explanation of the decision in the Vargas-Vera case, which followed three days of deliberations.

According to County Attorney Dave Patton, Iowa law dictates that testimony and other matters relating to the grand jury proceedings will remain confidential.

The proceedings have been sealed by the court, and everyone involved with the grand jury process sworn to secrecy.

The county attorney's office has until August 20 to refile charges, but Buena Vista County Attorney Dave Patton said this week that he does not expect other charges to be filed against Vargas-Vera.

In essence, the grand jury system serves as a test of the likelihood of conviction - something of a preview of a potential jury trial, Patton said. The grand jury in theory looks not just at the present charge but at any potential crime related to an individual, Patton said, so a different charge would not be likely.

It takes five members of a seven-member grand jury to approve of an indictment. The outcome of the vote by the grand jury in this case was not released. The judge said any additional deliberation would be unlikely to change the grand jury's opinion.

According to jail records, Vargas-Vera is not a U.S. citizen, and had no record of previous local arrest. His bail had been increased from $32,500 to $250,000, for fear that he might be a risk to flee.

Already this year, at least 16 children have died in hot vehicles from Hawaii to Virginia. Only twelve states have legislation regarding children left in cars while two states have time limitations.

One pediatric report indicates that some children have died when left in cars in temperatures as low as 70 degrees.

Since the mid-1990s, the number of children who died of heat exhaustion while trapped inside vehicles has risen dramatically, totaling around 340 in the past 10 years. Ironically, one reason has apparently been a change parent-drivers made to protect their kids after juvenile air-bag deaths peaked in 1995 - they put them in the back seat, where they are more easily forgotten.

A July Associated Press analysis of more than 310 fatal incidents in the past 10 years found that prosecutions and penalties vary widely. Parents were slightly less likely to be charged and convicted than caregivers or other relatives, but the median sentence was much higher when parents are charged - 54 months.

Paid caregivers are much more likely to be charged and convicted than a non-paid person or relative babysitting a child, as in the Vargas-Vera case.

Women are jailed more often and for longer periods than men. For example, in the case of parrents, the median sentence was three years for dads, but five for moms.

"I think we generally hold mothers to a higher standard in the criminal justice context than in just family life generally," says Jennifer M. Collins, a college professor who has studied negligence involving parents and such hyperthermia cases.

In 27 percent of the cases in the AP study, the children got into the vehicles on their own. Those cases are much less likely to have a caregiver be prosecuted. In about three-fourths of all the cases, like Vargas-Vera, the responsible person claims they simply forgot the child.

David Diamond, an professor at the University of South Florida and a leading researcher on memory, suggests that so many child deaths occur because parents cannot conceive of the possibility. "But, in fact, we can be more complacent because we tell ourselves, 'There's no way I would forget my child."'

Prosecution of family members in many cases involves probation, required parenting or substance abuse treatment.

These cases are, sadly, not unheard of in Iowa. One-year-old Payton Burchett died in a vehicle in Mount Pleasant in August of 2005 on a 93-degree day, when her mother forgot to take her to the babysitter before she went to work. No charges were filed.

In the state's best-known case, seven-month-old Clare Engholm of Perry died in June 2001 in the back of a minivan, when her mother, a hospital administrator, forgot the child. The mother was charged with felony neglect of a dependent, but was released without a prison sentence.

Storm Lake police officials had no comment on the court decision, but do push for awareness.

"Everybody needs to be aware of children at all times - whether it be parents, relatives, babysitters or child care workers. We have to have children properly buckled in vehicles, and we urge people not to leave a child in a car, so the chance of them being forgotten doesn't have to come up," Police Captain Todd Erskine said.

The incident had affected people far beyond the family's home.

"This is such a tragedy, especially since it is preventable. I think this entire community has been left very sorrowful," Erskine said.

The family's friends, church and employer have rallied around them. Donors came forward to cover the cost of the funeral, and collections are now being taken up toward a headstone for Steven and the family's first child, who died at birth about three years ago.

* Associated Press research contributed to this report.

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