Mom Recounts Heartbreaking Story of Daughter's Accidental Death in a Hot Car

It doesn't always happen the way you expect.

— -- (Editor's note: Jenny's article originally appeared on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta website. It has been reprinted here with permission. Help keep your family safe with more summer safety tips from the pediatric experts at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.)

It was August 22, 2010.

My husband, sons, daughter and I started the day at church. As we were leaving the services, my 6-year-old daughter, Sydney, made sure to bring home the craft she’d been working on in Sunday school.

As we finished up lunch at home in our kitchen, Sydney asked whether she could go play at a friend’s house. It was something my little social butterfly did practically every day. With our blessing, she walked next door to her best friend’s house. My husband and middle son, Mason, tended to projects around the house, and my oldest son, Logan, and I headed out to do some grocery shopping.

Halfway through our shopping trip, I called home to ask Mason to bring his sister home. But, he didn’t find her at the neighbor’s. When he called to tell me that news, my first thought was, “She’s in so much trouble! She knows to ask for permission before heading to a different house!”

Our quiet, suburban neighborhood in Evans, Georgia, was just like the one I’d grown up in: sidewalk chalk, bikes strewn everywhere, you never knew how many extra kids you’d have at your dinner table at night. I asked Mason to find whose house she’d decided to visit and call me back with an update.

When Mason called back, I had a nearly full grocery cart. “She’s not at any of those houses.”

I left the cart where it was and rushed home, a tingling feeling of panic in my chest.

On the way, I got another phone call. It was Mason calling from a neighbor’s cellphone. I couldn’t make out his words at first, but the first thing I heard was “Mom, we found her. She’s very blue.”

Sydney had gotten into our SUV, which was parked in our driveway, and been overtaken by heat in the backseat. That’s where they found her, unresponsive and blue. She never woke up.

We’d later piece together what was most likely to have happened. Sydney went next door to play but, after finding an empty house, she headed home. Remembering the craft she’d left in the car after church, she decided to retrieve it.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve asked myself a series of “What ifs?” There are so many variables that, if changed only slightly, could have made it possible for Sydney to be celebrating her 11th birthday this year. Among the most recurring questions is, “What if the car door had been locked?”

Year after year, stories about children left in hot cars make national headlines. The seemingly impossible act of forgetting a sleeping child in a back seat can, and does, happen to the most dedicated, loving and devoted parents.

But that’s not our story.

We never left any of our children alone in a car at any time. A scenario we hadn’t envisioned, though, was what if one of our children entered a car … alone?

In our neighborhood, kids love to play hide and seek. When trees and patios are taken, what better place to hide than the backseat of a car?

If you are a parent, teach your children that vehicles are never to be used as a play area. And even if you don’t have kids, know your unlocked car could be tempting to a curious child.

We miss our Sydney every minute of every day. Somewhere along our grief journey, I stopped questioning those “What ifs?” to instead focus on using our living nightmare to educate other parents.

So, I beg you, especially as the temperatures rise, recognize that your car could become a weapon. Never leave your car unlocked if there’s even a slight chance a child may be playing nearby.

Educate the children in your life, lock your car doors and, no matter how old your child is, never assume.