by Jeanne Sager
How do you leave a child in a hot car? It's a question every parent has asked at one time or another -- usually sparked by a headline about a child dying in a vehicle somewhere in the United States. Lyn Balfour has asked the question too. She's asked the question about herself.
The 13-year veteran of the US Army, member of the Army Reserves, and mother of five -- including three children 6 and under -- left her son Bryce in her car on March 30, 2007. By the time she realized her mistake, her 9-month-old son was dead.
After being charged with his death and later being found not guilty, Balfour has became a fierce advocate for educating parents on these accidental tragedies. She spoke with The Stir about the day her son died, and what kind of mom leaves a child in a hot car:
Can you walk me through that day?
This particular week, my husband had accidentally backed into my sister's car in the driveway, so her car was in the shop and she was using my husband's. So, he was riding with me to work, and I was dropping him off first and then the baby ...
This particular week, my son Bryce had been really fussy. He had a bad head cold, wasn't sleeping well because he couldn't suck on his pacifier at the same time, so he kept waking up.
The first three nights of the week, I had gotten up with him the majority of the night, and I was exhausted. That last night, my husband agreed to get up with him, but then he couldn't find his pacifier in his bed. Bryce went ballistic, woke up completely, and then I got up, was up with him for another hour and a half to two hours.
That was about 5 o'clock in the morning. I had to be up at 6:30 in order to get ready for work. I didn't actually get up until 7:15 because I was exhausted.
The initial thought in my mind was just to call in, stay home with Bryce because he was just very lethargic, he wasn't being normal because he was really tired too. But I had appointments that day -- at the [Judge Advocate General school in Charlottesville], students were graduating and I had no way to call the students that I had appointments with. I was like, you know what? It's Friday, I've just got to get through today and I can sleep tomorrow.
That particular morning, Jarrett got Bryce ready. He went to get in the vehicle, but before I came outside we were talking about a spare car seat that we could not get into the car correctly. He had been in the car seat for a couple of weeks, but it just wasn't sitting as secure as we felt it should be so we took that car seat out and put it in his old car seat.
That particular day, he said, "When are you going to get the car seat put in?" I said, "Put it in the car today, and I will go to like the fire department and get them to put it in correctly at lunch time."
He put the spare car seat in the car behind the front passenger seat in my field of view, and that car seat was empty. The other car seat, which is the car seat Bryce was in, when he put him in he put it behind my seat, the driver's seat.
On the way to work ... we don't remember hearing him. We don't remember talking with him or him cooing or anything like he normally would. We just assume it was because he was really tired.
I dropped my husband off, and shortly after that I got a phone call from work, from a co-worker. It was the first sergeant of the school very upset because we were honoring a fallen soldier from Iraq, his family was supposed to be coming in from California and the tickets had not been purchased through the travel agent that the military uses.
That was my area of responsibility -- I was transportation officer for the JAG school. I immediately got on the phone, started making phone calls, called the family that was waiting at the airport, talked to the gate agent, said please don't let the plane go, this is very important for this family to get on the flight.
Is this while you were still driving?
Yes, when I was on my way to work.
In my mind, I'd already made a stop, baby's dropped off. I passed right by where I would normally turn left to drop Bryce off to daycare.
Before I got to work, I got things resolved. I got ahold of the travel agent, they paged the tickets, everything.
I got to work, got out of the car and went into work like normal...
I get a phone call about 10:30 in the morning from the babysitter asking how Bryce was doing that day. The problem was I didn't get the phone call because she called my personal cellphone because the Friday before she had gotten a brand new cellphone and didn't have any of my work contact information in her phone.
That was communication failure number one.
The second thing was that in her file in her home she had all our contact information, my work cellphone number, my work office number, my husband's work office number but she just naturally assumed -- because it had happened in the past -- that I stayed home and he wasn't feeling well.
She didn't think to continue to communication, not thinking that he was accidentally not dropped off.
What time frame was this when she made the call?
10:30 in the morning.
I wasn't in the office when she called, but around 2 p.m., I pulled my cellphone personal cellphone out of my purse and I saw a missed call from her.
She had called me twice that morning. She called that first time and left a message and then she called again. It said missed call, but it never told me there was a message available.
At 2:30, I saw the missed call, I called her back, and I left her a message. She'd taken her other daycare kids to McDonald's as a treat, and around 2:30 she was still out ... So, I called and left a message ... she called me back when she saw a missed call from me at about 10 to 4.
I was just walking out of my office because we'd been given an hour out early. She asked me how Bryce was doing, and I was like "what do you mean?"
I didn't understand. I said, "Did Jarrett pick him up early?" not thinking that he didn't have a car because I had dropped him off.
She's like no, she's not here. She began to panic because I was so adamant that he was there.
Then, she turned around and she's like, "No Lyn, you didn't drop him off."
The whole morning flashes through my mind, and I can remember dropping him off. I can remember having a conversation with her. And that memory never happened. That conversation never happened.
At this point, I panic. I ran to the car because I couldn't believe there was a possibility he could still be in the car and then I saw him in the car.
When you found him, what did you see?
He was in the backseat, he was hooked in, and he was not responsive. He was not breathing.
A police mugshot of Lyn
What did you do?
I started screaming and said, "Please somebody call 911!" And then -- even though I was extremely hysterical -- it's kind of hard to explain but my military training kind of took over.
I unhooked him, pulled him out of the car, ran around to the other side of the car, laid him on the ground, and started CPR.
What was the temperature that day?
The high that day was 66 degrees.
Do they know what that translates to in the car?
I don't recall specifically what the temperature was in the vehicle -- they took the measurement at 4:30 in the afternoon, but I think it was around 100 degrees. It was too hot for the child to be in the car, obviously.
It was only 39 degrees when we left the house that morning ... he probably passed away later in the morning or early afternoon because it was so cold that day, but on an 80-degree day, a child can die in 30 minutes or less.
The degrees once you turn off a vehicle can go up 10 degrees every 5 minutes, and children under a certain age do not have the type of temperature control that adults have.
Obviously you're very educated about this now, but before this happened, did you know any of this?
No. And the thing now, which is why I'm an advocate, is because when they told me they couldn't save him, I said to myself, "How can I forget my kid? I can manage $47 million for the US military with every penny accounted for, and I was awarded a Bronze Star for those efforts, but how can I forget my kid? How can a loving, responsible, detail-oriented parent forget him, something so precious, something so valuable?"
I started educating myself and doing research on why it was possible and how it was possible.
The more research I did, the more I learned ... we have educated ourselves on babyproofing our home, but we do not educate ourselves on babyproofing our vehicles and that's what we need to do.
Unlike some parents I was absolutely blessed to have the opportunity to hold my son one last time and tell him goodbye, and I made a promise to him that no matter how painful it would be to go through my story over and over and over again if just one parent listens and understood about the dangers and educated themselves and took the prevention measures for vehicles ... his death would be worth it.
It would be worth losing a child to save 100. No parent wants to feel like I do every day, to be responsible for your own child's death.
While you were there holding him, who responded?
The police and ambulance arrived.
What happened then?
They took over; they're more professional than I am.
They wouldn't let me ride in the back of the ambulance while they were working on him, but I rode up in front with the driver, and I called my husband and told him he had to get to the hospital right away because there was an accident, I forgot him in the car.
He didn't really understand because I was hysterical.
They took him into a room and were working on him while I was in the waiting room of the hospital and one of the doctors came in and said it wasn't looking good. I stated praying to God to just take me.
Then maybe about 10 minutes later ... it seemed like a lifetime ... they came in and told me they couldn't save him.
I was hysterical, and all I could think of was how am I going to tell my husband that I killed his son?
What happened when your husband did get there?
The first sergeant of the school told my husband the news. She is a pastor at a church, and she was probably the best person to be able to tell him.
He came in and he was really upset and he was crying. I told him I was so sorry I forgot him.
They probably would not have let us see him and I don't even know if I would have been in the state of mind to ask to hold him one last time, but my husband said, "I want to see him, I want to see my son."
So, they escorted us into the room to see him one last time.
It was completely unbelievable and shocking to have to leave that hospital without him.
When you left the hospital, did you go home or were the police already there?
I got to go home, but the lead investigator on the case, they interviewed me at the hospital. I don't remember that at all.
That was on a Friday. I didn't talk to the police again until they arraigned me. That following Monday, I woke up and my mom and everybody got down there on Saturday and Sunday. They recommended that I get an attorney. I called a couple of attorneys to see what I would need to do.
The interesting thing was the lead investigator on the case walked in to the hospital that same day and told the first responders on the case, "OK, you guys go ahead and write your statements because we're going to charge her for everything you can."
He had not spoken to me and he had not spoken to my husband when he made that statement. So he already had his pre-formed opinion that I was guilty and they were going to go after me, and he was the one who set the tone for the case....
Nobody ever gets arraigned on a Saturday unless you're slapped with handcuffs and taken to jail, but they waited until the day of my son's funeral on a Friday to tell me they were arraigning me on charges the next day. Forty minutes after my son's funeral was over, I was at my house and the attorney I had spoken to, they called her and told her that I was going to be arraigned the following day.
I was really upset, and I was just like .... we're not going to be able to put our lives back together as a family, we have to go immediately into defense mode. My son died on the 30th of March. My husband left on the 21st of June to deploy to Iraq as a government contractor for 18 months in order to cover my attorney fees which ended up being $126,000.
What was the charge?
The initial charge was second degree murder and felony child abuse and neglect. They later amended that dropping the abuse and neglect and reducing the second degree to involuntary manslaughter.
Here in Virginia, it says willful act or admission. That was not the case. I didn't knowingly do that.
How long did the whole thing drag out? Did they put you through a long trial?
He died in March; I was charged the following week. The trial was like the 28th of January 2008.
What was it like trying to grieve your child's death and on the other hand you don't know what's going to happen?
My perspective on it's a little different from other people. The thing I was worried about was my family -- my husband, my son who was at the time 14. That's who I was worried about, that's who I was stressed about it.
My husband was getting ready to deploy, my son was trying to deal with the loss of his only sibling and his mom was facing 10 to 25 years in jail.
The thing is, I've been to a lot of place in the military that a lot of people, you see and experience things, like Bosnia. You talk to war victims and people who have gone through devastating things. I've been out in the middle of the desert during Desert Storm, and I had to go to the bathroom in a hole that I had to dig and bury.
Going to jail and sitting in a jail cell with three meals a day to me is not hell, and that's what I don't think that prosecuting attorneys and them ... they don't understand.
When they punish you for a crime they think you committed, it's supposed to be a deterrent, but how do you deter someone from accidentally forgetting your kid?
This has happened to a mathematical genius. This has happened to a NASA scientist. It has happened to a pediatrician. It's happened to numerous university professors. It's happened to the poor. It's happened to rich people. It's happened to middle class. It doesn't matter.
I explain to people who try to tell me they couldn't be that irresponsible, I was one of those parents. I had heard stories about that happening, and I said that could never happen to me, I'm not an irresponsible parent, that's got to be somebody who didn't do the right thing. That cannot be me.
I have found out it absolutely can be me, and that's why I educate.
The reality is our brains don't differentiate between a child, a purse, a cellphone, a pair of glasses. It doesn't matter.
How do you tell parents to get past that though? If parents are stuck on that idea of "I'd never do that to my child," how do you get them past that and into actually being proactive?
If people say they can never do it, I give them examples:
I know plenty of people who take medication every day. If you didn't take that medication but you swear up and down that you did, it's call mis-remembering.
If that's happened to you, you can forget your child.
If you've ever driven anywhere, and you can't remember how you got there, that's a function of your brain going on auto-pilot. If that's ever happened to you, you can forget your child.
I give these examples because people will say, "Oh, that didn't happen to me, that didn't happen to me, OH, wait a minute, that has happened to me."
If you've ever forgotten your cellphone, your pager, your wallet, your keys, your sunglasses, and you swear you know where you put them but they are not there, and you find them in a completely different location, you can accidentally forget your child.
Do you think these examples you've found out about and this research has helped you forgive yourself?
Well ... that's an interesting question. I don't feel like I need to forgive myself. I do acknowledge and have to deal with the responsibility of forgetting my son.
But I feel like parents that do this intentionally -- they leave their kids in the car and they go somewhere, like one parent, a veterinarian, she has to deal with the fact that she went into the house and got distracted on the phone and forgot her son was in the car. She has to deal with that. That to me is like I feel you have to ask for forgiveness.
But for me, when I got out of the car that day, my son was exactly where he was supposed to be.
What I have to come to terms with, and this is what is really hard for me -- because my son usually took his first bottle in the morning at the babysitter's. Because it was so cool that morning, at some point at time he woke up because he was hungry and was in the car by himself.
That's what I have to deal with -- not being there for him.
There's nothing to forgive, but I will be accountable, I am absolutely accountable for his death. That's what I have to deal with. Can you say that that's forgiveness or not forgiveness? I don't really know. But for me the problem is that I should have been the type of parent that knew about these dangers and made sure there were steps in place to prevent that.
It sucks. It sucks every day.
It's something that you have to live with.
I'm accountable every day. I miss him every day. He would be 8 years old today. I'll never see him grow up. I'll never see him graduate from school. I'll never see his children.
How did your family move on? How did things work with you and your husband?
He was angry for awhile but not necessarily at me. He was angry because our son was gone and there was nothing he could do about it.
Unbelievably he and I became stronger and talked about it and learned to work through it and he knew it was an accident. He knew I would never leave my children in the car, not even for a second.
It was hard for awhile to talk about him without crying. I do feel like it was a blessing in disguise that my husband was deployed except for coming home for the trial.
He was not home for any of that, so I feel like it was beneficial that he was out of the country so he didn't have to go through that.
How did you decide to try again, to have kids again?
Again, it's about love and trust. He knew I would never intentionally hurt one of our children and we just didn't not try.
The interesting thing that happened was he was going to be gone for a year and a half to Iraq. Originally it was just a year ... my husband is seven and a half years younger than me, so when I had Bryce I was 31, and so I wasn't getting any younger so to speak.
We knew he was going to be gone for year, and we talked to a counselor, we talked to our pastor and said when is an appropriate time to grieve? When is an appropriate time to have another baby?
What our pastor said and what our counselors said was when you feel like you can, there's noting wrong with trying.
Bryce passed away in March. We ended up getting pregnant with Braiden in September/October, somewhere around in there.
We talked about it, and I asked him if he wanted to try, and I think that was part of the healing process -- that he was so willing to have children with me, even though we were hurting and we were grieving the loss of our son.
That for me was the most telling part of it, that he forgave me.
I do think that Braiden's birth helped us to continue to heal because it pulled us away from the loss that we felt
By the time Braiden was born, had you been found not guilty?
Yes, the trial was only like three days.
You have different ways you talk to parents about recognizing they can be at risk, but what do you actually tell parents to DO?
The best tool that I can provide to them is to go to the Kids and Cars website, and what I tell them is to get in the habit of babyproofing your vehicles ...
Put a stuffed animal in the vehicle, and always, always, if you have one or 50 children, if there's a child in the car, put that animal up front with you or put something in the backseat that you're going to need when you get out of the car. I don't like that idea as much as the stuffed animal up front because you can forget your cellphone that you need and you remember 30 minutes later ... and you're in the same situation.
We've started a campaign called Look Before You Lock, so you ALWAYS get in the habit of opening the back door and looking before you lock the door.
How do you deal with the criticism and with being so public?
Because I made him a promise, and nobody can judge me more than I do myself. Nobody. It doesn't matter what they say, the harsh things. I've been told you need to be locked in a hot car and allowed to die the same way your son did, you need to have your uterus ripped out, you should never be allowed to have children again, the list goes on and on.
But none of them know me. They don't know anything about the type of person I am, what type of a mother I am.
If you don't know the type of person I am, how can you judge me?
Do you take extra steps to protect your kids from being left in a hot car? What do you do?