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Jewish World Review July 26, 2001/ 6 Menachem-Av 5761

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports

Dying to do the wrong thing --
THE hospital executive-mom who forgot her 7-month-old baby for nine hours and found her dead in the family minivan after work will not be left to suffer her tragedy in peace. She has been charged with neglect of a dependent person, a felony and involuntary manslaughter. Combined, the two charges are punishable by up to 12 years in prison.

It is doubtful that a jury would send this bereaved mother to prison. Kari Engholm's sorrow seems genuine, and she has another child, 3 1/2-year-old Eric. Not many people would see her as a criminal deserving of such harsh punishment. On the other hand, it is unthinkable that a mother who forgets her child, leaving a baby to die miserably, should escape any consequence.

The day her baby died, Engholm, chief executive officer of the Dallas County Hospital in Perry, Iowa, had a particularly hectic schedule. Customarily, her husband dropped the baby off at daycare, but on this day the job fell to Mom. Engholm apparently was so distracted by her official duties that her baby slipped her mind.

Impossible to imagine? To most of us, yes. But the story of babies forgotten in cars is being retold across the nation at a disturbing rate. Two other mothers reported forgetting their babies, who also died, within weeks of Engholm's case. Another 15 children have died this year from hypothermia in automobiles as a result of forgetfulness or stupidity. There's even an organization with a Web site dedicated to fighting this sinister American trend.

Janette Fennell, cofounder of the annoyingly cute Kids 'n Cars, reports that last year eight fathers forgot to drop a child at daycare while on their way to work, and the child died. These were not, she says, "deadbeat dads" or other losers, but included a NASA engineer, a high school teacher in Illinois, a Web site developer and a lawyer. None of the eight were charged, according to Fennell.

Indeed, one can't help considering the possibility that Kari Engholm has been selected as an example for punishment. Given her curriculum vitae, she's the perfect prototype for societal scorn: the career mom who puts her job before her children.

By contrast, the two other forgetful moms whose names have appeared in print recently were less attractive candidates for whipping girls. Linda Montano, a foster mother in Rialto, Calif., left a 3-year-old girl in her van, which had been filled with other foster children. She wasn't on her way to a high-paying job, but was simply a do-gooder who lost count. Addled rather than evil.

The other mother, Diana Rodriguez of Colorado Springs, left her infant son in the car while she worked an eight-hour shift at McDonald's. Rodriguez, who found her baby dead in the back seat of her car after work, said she thought she had left the infant at her sister's house. In the populist mind, the distraction of an underprivileged, minority single mother is perhaps more forgivable than the distraction that accompanies power.

There's no way to separate our prejudices from our sense of justice, and I'm not innocent when it comes to contempt for misplaced priorities. Regardless of what Engholm's business day may have required of her, I can find little excuse for dumping an infant in day care for nine hours at a stretch except in dire circumstances, i.e. no other options.

A hospital executive can do better. Which is to say, I'm not above being judgmental. I am, however, uncomfortable making Engholm a scapegoat in what seems to be a problem not unique to career mothers. Career fathers make the same mistake, as do others who may just be stupid and selfish. The fact that three of the 15 dead babies listed by Kids 'N Cars were left in vehicles parked in Las Vegas statistically hints at the latter.

I can imagine no greater punishment than the loss of one's child, and a judge and jury would be hard-pressed to do more to Engholm than she's already done to herself. A better consequence than prison might be to order Engholm to share with others the revelation that's bound to come about the relative importance of a career balanced against the welfare of one's children.

As a society we could hope for little better. In the meantime, given the learning curve in a nation defined by selfishness, car manufacturers might install in cars a buzzer that sounds as the driver exits if there's still a weight in a passenger seat. We cared enough to do it for our keys.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.

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