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Florida heat can be deadly for children left in cars

A map shows children's deaths in hot cars over 12 years.
A map shows children's deaths in hot cars over 12 years.

A Jacksonville man was arrested this week after a toddler was pulled alive from a parked car while he shopped. More than 1,050 children have died in hot cars nationwide since 1990.

The baby was sweating profusely as he sat in a closed car at a wholesale club on Philips Highway on Monday, the engine off as the vehicle baked in 90-degree-plus heat.

Michelle Rossman said she was shopping just after 10 a.m. when she spotted the child, then she and others swarmed to help the overheated boy in the unlocked car as police and firefighters were called.

Firefighters rescued the child, and a search found the 37-year-old father inside the store, an arrest report said. Khayyam Marque Johnson was arrested on charges of child abuse without great bodily harm and possession of marijuana. He bailed out of jail after two days behind bars, Duval County jail records show.

Rossman, a mother herself, said she can't figure out why anyone would leave a child in a car on a hot day.

"That devastates me," she said. "I can't even imagine leaving an animal, let alone a child, in a car, and you hear about it sometimes in the news, but you just never think it's going to hit you. ... I know people can forget, but especially in this heat, be mindful of where you are, what you have in your car and what's going on."

Temperatures in Jacksonville have soared into the 90s every day this month except one, hitting 98 three times. The heat index often reaches 105 degrees or more, the National Weather Service says. A car's interior would have been much worse, said Kids and Car Safety Director Amber Rollins, reacting to this child's case.

"The inside of a car could reach dangerous levels for a child within minutes," Rollins said. "Kids and Car Safety is incredibly grateful for the good Samaritan who rescued the child. In these extreme temperatures, everyone must take extra precautions to ensure children are not left in vehicles alone, not even for a minute. We should all keep our eyes and ears open in parking lots for children who have been left behind and call 911 immediately."

More than 1,050 children have died in hot cars nationwide since 1990, and at least 7,300 survived with varying injuries, according to data collected by Kids and Car Safety. Approximately 87% of children who die in hot cars are 3 or younger, with the majority (56%) unknowingly left by a parent or caregiver. Of those cases, about 11% involved a miscommunication between two parties.

"In these extreme temperatures, everyone must take extra precautions to ensure children are not left in vehicles alone, not even for a minute. We should all keep our eyes and ears open in parking lots for children who have been left behind and call 911 immediately."
Amber Rollins

Rossman said she had just parked next to the 2018 Chevrolet Impala when she saw a baby in a child seat in the back and no one else around on that sunny Monday. She said the baby, about 6 months old, appeared asleep. Rossman alerted a security guard nearby and they both opened car doors.

"The baby startled, so we knew the baby was OK," she said. "He was very lethargic, sweat all over his face and everything, so it was definitely a hot car. Luckily, the doors were unlocked, but the windows were completely up and the child was in there."

Another witness checked the baby for a pulse as police were called. An officer found a photo ID in the car and used that to find Johnson inside the store, the arrest report said.

"While taking Johnson into custody it should be noted he kept asking what this incident was about," the arresting officer said in the report. "Once Johnson saw the firetruck and multiple police cars, he began to panic. I then informed Johnson (that the baby) was left in a hot unattended car and he began to freak out and panic."

Rossman said she believed the baby had been inside the car for at least 20 minutes. The child was barefoot with no diapers, juice or bottle.

The Jacksonville child survived. But a previous Florida case left a toddler dead.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office charged Lakeland couple Joel and Jazmine Rondon, both 33, with aggravated manslaughter of a child July 5. Deputies found their 18-month-old daughter dead in a car the morning after her parents came home from partying. The child had been strapped into her car seat in the extreme heat, the Sheriff's Office said.

Investigators said that the couple went to a Fourth of July celebration in Lakeland with three children, then came home at 3 a.m. the next day. The couple had consumed alcohol and smoked marijuana at the party, the Sheriff's Office said. The woman told her husband to bring the baby inside while she took the other children. But the husband assumed his wife had taken the baby inside, and both went to sleep. They realized the child was still in the car at 11 a.m. the next day, the Sheriff's Office said.

The child was declared dead at a hospital, with her internal body temperature still over 104 degrees when hospital staff measured it just before 3 p.m., the Sheriff's Office said. An autopsy determined that the cause of death was hyperthermia due to being left in a car.

If a child appears to be in distress if found alone in a hot car, Rollins said they should be removed immediately and cooled down, since "minutes can be the difference between severe brain damage or even death."

"Florida has a law that protects citizens from liability should they break a vehicle window to rescue a child, adult or pet trapped inside a hot car in distress," Rollins said.

Florida Highway Patrol Capt. Peter Bergstresser told the News Service of Florida that there is no safe amount of time to leave a child unattended inside a car. 

“The temperature in the car can go up by 20 degrees in 10 minutes," he said. "So, what we ask is that you always check your car’s back seat. Make sure you didn’t leave any of your young ones in the car.” 

Bergstresser advises anyone who sees a kid left unattended inside a vehicle, regardless of location, to immediately call 9-1-1.  

Modern cars do have systems that remind drivers to check their back seats when shutting the vehicles off, stemming from a 2023 regulation from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Copyright 2023 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Dan Scanlan