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Cobb County police investigate an SUV where 22-month-ol... Cobb County police investigate an SUV where 22-month-old Cooper Harris died near Marietta, Ga., where his father went to work. Newly released court records show police want to learn about the health of the toddler in the months before he died of heat exposure in his father's car near Atlanta. (Photo: The Associated Press).
The circumstances surrounding the death of a Georgia toddler in a hot car last month are macabre. Authorities say Justin Ross Harris, 33, may have left his 22-month-old son, Cooper, in the family's car for more than seven hours on purpose while temperatures in Cobb County, Georgia, reached 92 degrees.

On Monday, prosecutors released more details from their investigation, and say that Harris may have sent lurid text messages to as many as six different women while he worked June 18 as his son slowly died. Previously, they said Harris researched hot-car deaths online in the weeks before the boy's death.

He has been charged with felony murder and second-degree child cruelty, and is being held without bail. He has pleaded not guilty.

If Harris is found to have orchestrated his son's death, this case would be an anomaly. There are an average of 38 vehicular heatstroke deaths per year in the United States, but the number of cases that may involve criminal intent are exceedingly rare. Most don't even involve recklessness on the part of parents or caregivers.

Instead, many of these deaths occur under the most mundane of circumstances: a sleep-deprived parent forgets a sleeping child in the rear seats, a child climbs into a car without knowledge of others, a parent steps away expecting to be gone for a minute and gets distracted for a longer period of time.

So far in 2014, there have been 15 vehicular heatstroke deaths, according to Kids and Cars, a nonprofit advocacy group that tracks the deaths of children in vehicle-related incidents. Two have occurred since Cooper Harris died.

Last week, a two-year-old boy in Buford, South Carolina, woke up from a nap and locked himself in the family car without a parent knowing he was gone. He died Sunday. That same day, a two-year-old girl in El Paso, Texas, was found dead in a hot car.

Regardless of intent, authorities often bring some sort of charges against parents responsible for care of the child. An Associated Press analysis of more than 310 fatal incidents conducted in 2007 found that charges are filed in half of all cases, and that the charges and sentences can vary widely based on where the death occurred and whether the mother, father or another caregiver was responsible for the child.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the deaths have occurred in southern states. Texas and South Carolina have each suffered three such deaths. But they've also occurred in places like Illinois, New York and Georgia. Janette Fennell, president and founder of Kids and Cars, says that underscores that these vehicular heatstroke accidents can happen anywhere – and to anyone. In years of examining these deaths, she says she's talked with teachers, pediatricians, dentists, postal clerks, police officers, nurses and an assistant principal, among others, who have lost children in these types of accidents.

"Absolutely the worst thing a parent can do is to think that this could never happen to them or their family," she said.

In more than half the cases examined by Kids and Cars since 1991, parents unknowingly left children in a vehicle. Often a small disruption to a routine, such as a phone call or a stop for food, can lead a parent or caregiver to make a scheduled daycare stop. In 31.5 percent of the cases, children got into the vehicle on their own. In 11.9 percent of the cases, a parent knowingly left a child in the vehicle, and in 1.8 percent of cases, the circumstances are unknown.

Several companies offer devices that ostensibly alert parents to children in the back seat once a car's engine is turned off. But a first-of-its-kind study conducted by the Children's Hospital Of Philadelphia in 2012 found many of the devices were "inconsistent and unreliable."

Safety advocates tell parents to keep a briefcase or cell phone in the backseat – something that triggers an automatic look at the rear when arriving at a destination. Fennell has another suggestion: A more-reliable technology that's built into the car itself.

"The auto industry recognizes we're human and not perfect, so if you leave your keys in the ignition, you get a warning," she said. "If your gas is low, you get a warning. If you don't buckle your seatbelt, you get a warning. If you leave your headlights on, you get a warning. So the question is, 'Who decided it's more important not to have a dead battery instead of a dead baby?' I don't want that to sound harsh, but that's reality."



Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at peter.bigelow@teamaol.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.


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  • 30 Comments
      Judith
      • 9 Months Ago
      I would bet that the people who managed to forget their child in the car had no problem remembering to take their cell phones, purse, briefcase, groceries, etc. with them.
        ffeonxe
        • 9 Months Ago
        @Judith
        You do have a point. And as forgetful as I am in leaving my phone, purse, and even groceries behind, (I never carried a briefcase) I never ever, could never ever, forget that I have a child in the car. My good Lord, even uopn exiting and closing the door, and LOCKING the doors, it never 'clicked' that a child is left back there??? I cannot see it happening to me. I am not saying it happens on purpose every time it happens, but I honestly cannot see it happening to me, and yes, I have gone through many stressful life's circumstances.
        ffeonxe
        • 9 Months Ago
        @Judith
        You do have a point. And as much as I have left behind my phone, purse, and groceries, (never travel with a briefcase) I cannot see me walking off and forgetting a baby in a car. I am not saying all events are orchestrated, but my good Lord, even upon exiting and closing the door, and then LOCKING the doors, it never as much as "clicked" that a baby is left back there?? I cannot honestly see it happening to me...and yes, I have been through many very stressful life's circumstances. Rest in Peace little Angel Cooper.
      Merrio Fryman
      • 9 Months Ago
      that bastard that left that little child in the hot car for 7 hours, I would like to take that sich father out into the desert, hands handcuff behind his back, legs bound together amd ankles shackled, and leave him for seven hours, and if he didn't croak by then I would pour boiling oil over him. yes, I'm very angry, and some may say I wrong to say what I'd do.
        • 9 Months Ago
        @Merrio Fryman
        Please follow my link and share with others to address this very issue. I am on a mission to raise awareness and am not taking a soft stance on the issue. http://teespring.com/windowbreaker
      • 9 Months Ago
      http://milford.patch.com/groups/blogging-it-like-it-is/p/breaking-windows-savings-lives
      presleyzane
      • 9 Months Ago
      how can anyone forger your own child ???? he was put in the car by the parent,i do not get it so many stupid parents should not have kids ,these poor kids die because of brainless so called adults ,that father crying in court because he got caught .he is a fat pig i hope he rots in hell.
      mpflorals
      • 9 Months Ago
      Perhaps the car manufacturers can have a signal when you leave the car, to check for your children, just like the sound the gas tank makes when it is empty. Why not? Sometimes we are on auto pilot and get preoccupied.
        d1anaw
        • 9 Months Ago
        @mpflorals
        Here they tell people to leave their phone, their purse, their shoe or something they aren't likely to forget in the back seat or to tie a ribbon to their keys as a reminder to check the back seat.
        ffeonxe
        • 9 Months Ago
        @mpflorals
        There can be a packed-to-capacity school bus racing along open roads with every child unbuckled in, and that is OK. Yet, if you drive your child (for whatever reason unbuckled in) on a country sideroad for but a few chains at 15 mph, you are ticketed, because it is against the law. I have always asked/commented on the question of why are there so many sophisticated amenities in all these fancy cars on the market, and there are practically no upgrading or reinstallment of new safety gadgets in the ordinary vehicles and public commutes...especially school busses. It is not about the safety issues as it is about the $$$$ amount in treturns "that swings the charriot." There can be censors installed for miles through underground caves to monitor bats... Why cannot there be a device that blares (not beeps) when a living, breathing infant is suffocating in a car whether purposefully or accidentally? In any event, it is the poor child that suffers. Parents deserve understanding when this accidentally occures, and so-called parents deserve the punishment when it is orchestrated. And as it stands, the case at hand allegedly shows signs pointing to orchestration. May the truth be the ultimate winner, and may justice be executed. Rest in peace little angel Cooper. So heartbreaking...so very heartwrenching.
      cathi
      • 9 Months Ago
      Redesign car seats so they are safe facing front. Interaction between parent and child on long drives is important but facing a rear seat cover does nothing for a child. And it would help parents "remember" there is a human being in there.
        • 9 Months Ago
        @cathi
        The design of car seats is not the issue. Rear-facing for any child under at least 2YO - and older than that is recommended - is the absolute safest way for them to travel in a car, period. The seat is not to blame here; it did its job of keeping the child as safe as possible.
      d1anaw
      • 9 Months Ago
      Sorry, not buying it. I think the official word is that most are accidents. But I think they are done on purpose more than people want to believe or imagine.
      karajt7
      • 9 Months Ago
      He killed the child on purpose!! Fat ugly red neck trying to have sex with 6 different women!! They never try to work just ONE of course.
        Evelyn
        • 9 Months Ago
        @karajt7
        Always like to add that little touch of racism, don't you? Get over yourself, and pray that something like this never happens to you.
      happy2bgridfree
      • 9 Months Ago
      Moms, make it a habit to throw your purse / baby bag in the back seat. Sad as it sounds, you might forget your child but you will not forget your purse ... particularly if your tablet and / or phone is in it. Dads: do the same with your briefcase or anything else you have with you.
      leenda11
      • 9 Months Ago
      The dad's trail of web searching tells a lot of his intent. The mom's action or (lack of) also speaks loudly. She should be behind bars with him. Little Cooper never had a chance with them as his parents. Rest in Peace little Angel Cooper.
        ffeonxe
        • 9 Months Ago
        @leenda11
        I agree...do not seem the grieving parents at all. If my child passed under any of the many circumstances, not to mention under one as horrible as baby Cooper's, I would not hesitate to "bring him back" if there was ever such a chance. The mother said she "would not bring him back" , which tells me that she is" OK" with him gone and possibly is happy with him gone. Her demeanor shows that she knows more than she is acknowledging, and should be held accountable. Rest in Peace little Angel Cooper.
      • 9 Months Ago
      I don't care how preoccupied or on autopilot a person is, there's no excuse to forget you have a child in the car. Some people are so focused on themselves...their own wants and needs.....that they just don't think about anything or anyone else. Surely, not every child left in a car was asleep or sitting quietly for the whole car ride. I just don't get how one completely forgets about their child for hours.
      • 9 Months Ago
      http://teespring.com/windowbreaker This angered me enough to do something proactive. Please see my link above. My mission has just begun to increase awareness and call out stupid for what it is.
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