x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

What should be the punishment when a child dies in a hot car?

A new federal law could soon make it illegal to leave a child locked in a vehicle. But the more cutting questions concern responsibility for the welfare of those too young to help themselves.

In a cool climate this child is safe, but in high temperatures children's systems are less able to cope. Their bodies become dehydrated, then they suffer seizure, coma and death. Getty Images
In a cool climate this child is safe, but in high temperatures children's systems are less able to cope. Their bodies become dehydrated, then they suffer seizure, coma and death. Getty Images

In a way it is simple: no child should be left alone in a car. And while enshrining that principle in federal law - as could soon happen - is a start, the more cutting questions concern responsibility for the welfare of those too young to help themselves.

The final draft of the first Federal Child Protection Law is all but complete. Soon it will go before the Ministry of Justice, from where it will be presented to the Federal National Council.

When it is, Dr Mona Al Bahar, FNC member and director of care for Dubai Foundation for Women and Children will be keenly searching for one article among the many: legislation that clearly states that leaving children unattended and locked in cars is illegal.

No such law exists in the UAE: nor for that matter is there any uniformity internationally, though many countries have enshrined the principle in law. But as the recent deaths in Umm Al Quwain and Sharjah show all too clearly, behaviour that might pass without much lasting consequence elsewhere can rapidly prove devastating in this climate.

Speaking yesterday Dr Al Bahar said: "The Child Protection Law will go before the FNC and as a member I will insist that this law includes something on this. These are not the first incidents of kids left in cars. Human life is so very precious. We cannot allow such things to be repeated.

"To put this in law may seem harsh to some people but the loss of a child's life is not an easy matter.

"If parents are being deliberately cruel then that is one thing and the punishment must be harsh. We are talking about children - children who are totally dependent on their parents' care, who cannot take a decision for themselves, cannot protect themselves, children with limited ability."

Dr Al Bahar's firm stance will chime with the vast majority of respondents to our own poll: 83 per cent voiced the opinion that parents who leave their children unattended in this manner should be prosecuted. But are these parents being deliberately cruel? In reality, in most cases, it seems terribly unlikely. And though, as Dr Al Bahar insists, "ignorance can be no excuse," it is, she adds, "something that must be addressed".

How else can the child deaths that stain the UAE's records each summer be prevented? How can legislators approach the recent cases? A five-year-old girl left in a car in UAQ for two hours. A two-year-old forgotten by his family, locked in the car in front of his own home in Sharjah. How can they explain the ones that went before? The four-year-old girl forgotten on the school bus. The three-year-old boy similarly trapped and left behind. Are these to be taken as separate, tragic, cases or wrapped into a narrative of ignorance, stress and parental irresponsibility? Is the onus on the government to pick up the slack or the parents to step up to the mark? Are punishment or support, or both, the appropriate response?

However uncomplicated the central point as expressed by Dr Al Bahar - "You just can't leave your child locked in a car in this heat" - these are not entirely simple questions to answer. But creating a genuine awareness of just how dangerous it is to leave a child unattended would seem a very good start.

The occasional parental slip-up is understandable - the fraught mother who forgets to unload her child with the groceries, the harassed father who parks at work having failed to drop the children at childcare and leaves them asleep in the back. In gentler climates these may pass without serious consequence. But here such mistakes can prove fatal in a matter of minutes. Here there is far less room for error and so the bar, however unfair it may seem, is set that bit higher.

According to Lesley Cully, founder of Buckle up in the Back, an initiative she launched in May 2010, the recent cases hit her "like a sledgehammer". So much so that they have inspired her to change her campaign strategy. She says: "My message now will be to buckle up your children in the car but also unbuckle them and get them out of the car when you get out.

"But that message should be coming from a greater department than me in all languages. This information should be out there at the start of the summer."

Yesterday Mrs Cully, who has more than 3,500 followers on her Facebook page, updated the page's cover image with an illustration of the effect of heat on the temperature inside a car. She was shocked by the response. "I was surprised by the amount of people who weren't aware. People were asking me to convert the temperature on the graphic to Celsius from Fahrenheit: it made me wonder why people needed to know the exact detail of the heat because surely it's common sense."

What Mrs Cully calls common sense, Dr Al Bahar calls "a mother's heart and instinct". But, it seems, neither can be entirely depended upon when it comes to this issue. Add to this the fact that it is not always the parents who are in charge of their own children - or used to being in charge of their own children - and another layer of complacency or inexperience contrives towards creating fatal circumstances.

The psychologist Devika Singh, of the Dubai Herbal & Treatment Centre, says that there is a danger in succumbing to a natural human instinct to assume that no harm will come to us or our child - a notion with which many a concerned parent might take issue.

But according to Ms Singh: "It can be painful to think of certain consequences which can lead to a sense of denial which in turn affects precaution and preparedness."

Certainly the physical reality makes deeply uncomfortable reading. Within minutes the temperature in a car can rise to 30 degrees above that of the outside. A child's body is physiologically far less able to cope with this than an adult's. Rapidly, their system shuts down - the sweating mechanism, their blood flow. They become dehydrated, they suffer seizure, coma and death. This can happen in as little as 10 minutes.

However unpalatable this prospect, Ms Sing says: "The only way to prevent the family from being a victim to this kind of tragedy is to be as conscious as possible of the potential dangers."

And with awareness must come responsibility, according to Mrs Cully, who argues: "No one takes responsibility anymore. They don't worry about their children because they are with the maid. But many of these maids do not have the proper education of skills to be a nanny in the first place.

"I see parents around the swimming pool who are just chatting and not watching their children; it happens every day and it goes across all cultures and all races."

Stress, that much-referenced ailment of modern life, cannot be used as an excuse, says Dr Al Bahar. "This is part of life. The thing is how we manage it. Leaving our kids with nannies or leaving them without proper attendance is not the way.

"We need to educate people how to manage and control stress and we need to educate them on the dangers of this issue."

Because as firm as Dr Al Bahar is in her view that, ultimately, these cases should be subject to prosecution of some description, her real motivation in pushing for legislation is the belief that these incidents should never happen in the first place. So, she says: "It is not enough to have a law. There must be an awareness campaign about this law and about this behaviour.

"To me, leaving a child in a car unattended in this weather is abuse - even if it is a mistake. But really what matters is that these incidents must not be repeated.

"In the end we just don't want any child to get hurt."