Leaving Kids In Hot Cars: Foul or Forgivable?

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Virginia resident Karen Murphy's son died after being left in the family's car for seven hours.

Virginia resident Karen Murphy's son died after being left in the family's car for seven hours. Prince William County, Va. Police/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Prince William County, Va. Police/AP

A Va. mom is being charged with felony murder and child neglect after she allegedly left her baby in her van for hours by accident. In this week's "Moms" segment, host Michel Martin discusses this case with regulars Dani Tucker and Jolene Ivey, as well as former Md. State Attorney Glenn Ivey and journalist Gene Weingarten.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we speak with a diverse group of parents to get their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Today, we are talking about a gut-wrenching story that probably figures in the nightmares of many parents. But unfortunately, for a few, it's all too real.

A few weeks ago, a Virginia mom, Karen Murphy, went to work, put in a full day and drove home only to discover that she had left her two-year-old son Ryan in her van on a summer day for the whole day, about seven hours. He did not survive. Last week, Karen Murphy was charged with felony murder and child neglect. Now, certainly, Ms. Murphy made a terrible mistake, but did she deserve to be charged with murder?

And let's also ask the tough question: Is she being given an extra dose of attention from law enforcement because she's a mom and a working mom, at that? We're joined now by Dani Tucker. She's one of our regular guests and a mother of two. Also with us, Jolene Ivey. She's a Maryland state representative, the co-founder of a parenting support group and the mother of five boys. Also with us, Glenn Ivey. For eight years, he served as state's attorney in Prince George's County, Maryland, which means he was that jurisdiction's top prosecutor. He also happens to be Jolene's husband.

Gene Weingarten is also with us. He's a magazine reporter for the Washington Post. Last year, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his in-depth story about parents who have left their infants or toddlers in the back seats of cars. I welcome you all. And I do want to remind listeners that this conversation might not be suitable for everyone, given the subject. So with that being said, welcome everybody. Thank you for joining us.

DANI TUCKER: Hey, Michel.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Jolene, you had a very strong reaction to this story. I think, obviously, many of us did. But part of your reaction was, why the mom?

IVEY: I really feel like women are the ones who generally get most of the childcare burden. And therefore, this poor woman was trying to juggle her home responsibilities, her responsibilities as a mother, as a veterinarian, I believe she is, and it was just a lot for her to have to take care of at once. Obviously, if there's someone who's going to drop a ball, it's going to be the person who is overwhelmed.

MARTIN: But is your question: Why weren't both parents charged with neglect...

IVEY: Absolutely...

MARTIN: ...as opposed to just the mom because...

IVEY: ...because...

MARTIN: ...they're both - they're both caregivers.

IVEY: ...because they're both responsible. And I know technically she was the one who the husband was assuming was going to take care of the child at that moment. And maybe on a different day, it would have been a different circumstance. But I don't think it's right to blame someone completely for something that she had no way to be completely responsible for. Her husband was just as responsible for the child. And if he thought maybe she had a lot going on, maybe he should call and check how's the baby.

MARTIN: Glenn Ivey, obviously, you want to put both your dad hat on and your former prosecutor hat on. I do want to mention you are currently a partner in a law firm in private practice, no longer in office.

GLENN IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: But why was the mother charged in this particular case? Why wouldn't both parents be charged? I know it's not your call.

IVEY: Well, yeah. All I know about is what I read in the paper. My understanding was that the mother drove to work, left the child in the infant seat in the car during the day, and then I think dad had pick-up responsibilities. He went to the daycare at the end of the day, child wasn't there, then called mom and said: Where's the baby? Then mom goes out and finds the baby in the car. So...

MARTIN: So she had physical custody of the child and was the person who, in fact, left the child.

IVEY: Yeah. I mean, as far as I can tell, the dad had no way of knowing the child was in the car. Now, hypothetically, if you had, say, both of the parents drove somewhere, you know, they go to the Metro or something, and then both left the baby in the car, okay, I could see charging both. But, you know, if one of the parties didn't know, had nothing to do with leaving the child there, I think it would be hard to bring charges.

MARTIN: You know, it turns out that there's actually some data on this, and that there are groups that follow this. This is a very grim thing to have to keep track of. But according to the group Kids and Cars, which actually keeps track of cases like this, in 60 percent of cases like this, the parents face felony charges. But in the other cases, the parents aren't charged at all. So it's 60/40. Why would that be? What do you think is the determining factor there? Any idea?

IVEY: Well, I think it's a tough call for prosecutors, just like it is for, you know, the public. You know, when you hear a story like this, there's this sort of visceral reaction about it. And I've found, even in internal meetings, we'd have - I didn't have this kind of case specifically, but we did - we had a lot of cases where children ended up dead due to neglect or some kind of negligence. And frequently, my table of advisors would split, and sometimes it would split around the gender of the prosecutor, whether they had kids or not, how old the kids were, how many kids they had. I mean, so there's a lot of factors that could come in there that could take prosecutors in different directions. Of course, in addition to their read on the voters that put them in office and what they think their jury pools would be willing to do with respect to a trial like that.

MARTIN: Dani, what was your reaction? And we asked you to participate for a particular reason, which is there was something that happened in your family. Can you tell us your reaction to that?

TUCKER: I don't think she should have been charged with a crime. I mean, a month ago my 11-month-old cousin was intentionally left in a car to die by her father who didn't want to claim her or didn't want to pay child support. That was a crime.

MARTIN: Can I just stop by and say I'm really sorry and we're all very sorry. It's just a terrible tragedy.

TUCKER: Yes, thank you. But that's why this one really hurt me, because that's something that my family had to go through because this man did this on purpose. This woman didn't do this on purpose. She did not intend to leave her child in that car. And it kind of hurts, because I know she's suffering. I know she's suffering. I think about when I was raising my kids in a time when you're busy and you've got so much going on. For the grace of God, there go I.

Everybody knows me from the show. I talk about faith in God a lot. Me and my kids pray a lot. For that reason, help me keep my mind together so I don't forget or I don't miss those things that I could miss on a hectic day, on a day when everything is falling apart. And that's what happened to this lady. That's not a crime.

MARTIN: Gene, you have had the very rare experience of actually speaking to people who have done this, who have left their child in a car. First of all, I have to say, it had to of been a very difficult thing to report. It was reported in the case of this woman, Karen Murphy, that when she discovered her child her screams could have been heard throughout the neighborhood. But talk to us if you would, about what you learned about why this happens. It's actually more common than many people would like to believe.

GENE WEINGARTEN: Well, first of all, I talked to 13 parents who had done this and a surprising number of them said, you know, before it happened to me I was the kind of person who would, when you hear about a case like this, say how could anybody be so irresponsible. The people who follow these cases tell me that the parents who do this are very often the most careful parents. They're the ones who have bumpers on the furniture, they have locks on the cabinets. These are people who are very committed to being the best at things.

They want to be the best parents. They want to be the best at work. They are over committed and that can be a terrible collision. I want to tell you that in reporting this story I had one particular advantage in approaching these parents, I almost did this to my daughter. Thirty years ago I came within seconds of killing my daughter. It was in the heat of Miami. I was going to work. Same sort of fact pattern. And the only reason that she's alive today is that at the last minute, just before I was about to turn off the car and go into work in a 90 degree Miami day, she woke up and said something. And that's why she's alive and not a little pile of bones in the ground somewhere.

MARTIN: You must have been sick.

WEINGARTEN: This can happen to anyone.

MARTIN: In fact, you make that point in your story. You said that this has happened - first of all you make the point in the story that it happened 48 times in the country last year and already 18 times this year, according to Kids and Cars. That's a national child safety advocacy group. And you say this happens to all kinds of people; dentists, soldiers, homemakers...

WEINGARTEN: College educated...

MARTIN: College educated.

WEINGARTEN: ...illiterate, rich people, poor people, middle class people. It happens to fathers about equally as mothers. I, you know, I began with a prejudice here. I had assumed that I would find more men doing this than women, and it's about an equal number.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking to our panel of parents about a tragic phenomena, parents who accidentally leave their small children in hot cars for hours at a time, often leading to death. There was a recent case in the Washington, D.C. area where a woman, a mother of three, veterinarian left her two-year-old son in her car for about seven hours. He did not survive. She's now been charged with felony murder.

We're joined by Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post reporter, Gene Weingarten, who has written about this; former Prince George's County states attorney, Glenn Ivey; two of our regular Moms, Jolene Ivey and Dani Tucker. Glenn Ivey and Jolene are husband-and-wife, as you might have figured. I'd like to play a clip from the attorney who is prosecuting the case in Virginia in Prince William County. This is Paul Ebert, and he's explaining why he decided to bring murder charges against Karen Murphy.

PAUL EBERT: I don't know that she's going to be any better or worse from prosecution, but one of the reasons is we hope it would be a wake-up call for other people who may be trying to not take care of their children.

MARTIN: I'd like to ask each of you what you think of that. The idea is he's saying that this is intended to be a deterrent. Dani, you're shaking your head. You seem very upset about this. You're just saying no.

TUCKER: There's not a deterrent here and I think that's what has made me upset. Just like when I see the comments from people who agree with him, who want to see them prosecuted. And one of the guys in Gene's article, one of the prosecutors is like, I'm a watchful father. What does that mean because all of us can make a mistake. None of us are perfect enough that we are going to be the perfect parents and not make a mistake that might harm our child. And then we judge other parents. I just don't think it's fair. I just don't think it's right.

IVEY: Okay, Jolene, you really wanted to say something here.

IVEY: I was just going to say that when he's talking about, you know, it's going to deter other people from doing it, the thing that deters you from doing something like that is you don't want to kill your child. It's not that you don't want to go to jail, it's that you don't want to kill your child. So I think he totally misses the point and, you know, I think that he is very arrogant.

MARTIN: Glenn, what do you think?

IVEY: Well, I mean I think - I don't know that I necessarily would have approached it the same way he did. But just to play devil's advocate, I mean I think there are a couple of things that he mentioned that drove the decision at least to some extent. One is she'd done this previously. I think they had an incident about six or seven months ago where the same thing happened in the baby survived that time but...

MARTIN: It's true. Just to clarify, in the case that we're talking about, Karen Murphy in Prince William County, Virginia, apparently in January she left the child in the car, the same child in the car for 30 minutes before realizing her mistake. And he says that's part of what prompted him to charge her with murder. What about this whole idea that it's somehow is a deterrent for other people might make this mistake? What about that?

IVEY: Well, deterrence, public deterrence is something prosecutors think about, but they also think about raising issues at the public level to help address them. And for the fact that we are having this show right now, I think is some indication that he was successful with that. And...

MARTIN: No, I mean but what about Jolene's point, the fact we could be having this conversation simply because happened at all? I mean we've had shows about kids who've drowned to raise awareness of the fact that kids need to learn how to swim. No one need be prosecutors for that.

IVEY: Yeah, but I think the fact that he's prosecuting the case did elevate the profile of the case. I don't think there's any question about that.

MARTIN: Do you think that's a legitimate?

IVEY: Well, again, I'm not saying I necessarily would have done it this way but, you know, there's a point there. I mean for example, when I saw this issue come up it was on TV in the first half of the news segment was what had happened. The second half was an expert coming on to talk to parents about how to make sure it doesn't happen.

MARTIN: Gene, you made a - go ahead, you're shaking your head no too. You're saying...

WEINGARTEN: Everybody's been kind of diplomatic here. I think that decision was disgusting. You don't prosecute somebody to make an example of them. That's not how we do things in this country. You know, and in talking to parents...

MARTIN: Well, don't we? I mean isn't that in part what hate crime legislation is about is to say were going to, you know, as people disagree about that too. I mean they say in part they feel that hate crimes should have enhanced penalties because it is so disruptive to the fabric of society. So...

WEINGARTEN: Right.

MARTIN: ...don't we, don't we do that?

WEINGARTEN: But there you're punishing the crime. I mean in that case you are prosecuting somebody because they've done something heinous and you're punishing it. To take a case that is completely accidental and declare it murder simply to raise awareness of the issue is unconscionable in my opinion.

IVEY: Here, here.

WEINGARTEN: And I'll tell you something else. In talking to the parents who were prosecuted, they all said the same thing. They said the problem with being prosecuted for this case personally, and obviously they all feel terribly guilty about what happened. But when they have to face prosecution they cannot grieve. They have killed their child and they cannot grieve because they need to face the year, a year and a half, two years of a living nightmare. And in most of these cases, they're not convicted. This is simply a long process to bring somebody into humiliation.

MARTIN: Let me finish this conversation by saying is there anything that we can learn, you know, from this? Because in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to tell you that this is one of those things I used to have nightmares about. I mean I used to literally have dreams, anxiety dreams. You know, how people will remember, like, having anxiety dreams about like showing up in class and their dream was they forgot they forgot to take the class. And so they have to take an exam. And this is something that I used to have anxiety dreams about, that I would show up without my children someplace. It never happened, thank God, to me but I used to wake up in a cold sweat thinking I had forgotten my children somewhere. It was like it started the minute I brought them home, oddly enough. Is there anything we can learn from this? Dani?

TUCKER: I have one thing, I hope well learn. And again but the judgment, like Gene said, those same people are the people who never thought it would happen to them. And then the people who are judging them are these people who think it would never happen to them. As a parent I get so tired of hearing that. Stop thinking it will never happen to you. Anything can happen to you. You could have a lapse of judgment, a lapse of memory. We all can do it. Remember that because to me this young lady needs our support right now.

MARTIN: Gene, what do you think we could learn from this?

WEINGARTEN: I would just I would echo the same thing. I would just like to see more compassion. When I read these stories in the paper and then look at the comments afterwards, I sure would like to not see all that vitriol. It's a disgusting thing to read it.

MARTIN: Glenn?

IVEY: Yeah, I think one big take away ought to be that the criminal justice system probably isn't the best place to try and address these sorts of issues. Trying to put something in place on may be sensors in cars seats to let you know or, you know, whatever. We've got cars now that can tell you, they can park the car for you. For example, they can tell you when...

MARTIN: They can tell you if you're drifting off the road.

IVEY: ...if you're drifting off the road. This is probably one you might want to put in there. And that the second one too I would say is a dose of humility might be in order. Not just for prosecutors or lawyers in these cases, but just across the board. Because I think for any parent whether you have one kid and you have nothing else to do, if you think back honestly, I mean almost all of us has had a scenario where, you know, boy, the child could've drowned, could've wandered in the - well, did wander into street and could have been hit by a car. This, this, this, this. You know, there's almost all of us that's had a situation where a child could have died but for some other fortunate circumstance and we need to keep that in mind.

MARTIN: Jolene, final thought from you?

IVEY: Compassion from all of us, definitely. I think Gene's got it right too. We all need to think more about how we can support each other and less about how we can tear each other down.

MARTIN: Jolene Ivey and Dani Tucker are two of our regular Moms contributors. They were here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Glenn Ivey. He's a former state's attorney for Prince George's County, Maryland. That means he's the top prosecutor in that jurisdiction. He's now a partner at Venable LLC. Also with us Gene Weingarten. He is a Pulitzer prize-winning writer for the Washington Post. If you'd like to read the piece that he wrote where he interviewed parents who have left their children in hot cars, we will ring to it on our website. Go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE. Thank you all so much for joining us.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

IVEY: Thank you for being here.

TUCKER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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