It could never happen to me. I would never, ever forget my child was in the car. No way.
We heard that a lot from Ross Harris trial watchers, but the fact is it does happen, on average, 37 times a year in this country. Janette Fennell, founder of KidsAndCars.org has said, “In 90% of these cases, it’s some of the best parents you would ever want to meet, and in 10% of the cases, it might involve parents who had been drinking, or have a drug problem. But if you ask the average person what percentage they’d give to each one, almost every single time the answer would be, ‘Oh, 90% of the time it’s parents who don’t care about their kids, but 10% of the time, yes, I could see that might happen to good parents.’ And they’re surprised to find out that it’s exactly the opposite. We have totally the wrong perception on this issue.”
How Quickly we Forget
Another frequent comment from trial watchers was, “He couldn’t have forgotten Cooper in two minutes. Impossible!” But a vast amount of research on memory has shown that we humans can, and often do, forget in an instant.
Kilgore: We know that the drive from Chick-fil-A to the intersection was a very short drive. Have you studied how quickly we can actually lose awareness and forget?
Brewer: Yes, and not just my research. There’s a long history in psychology of studying how quickly information is lost from awareness. Memory failure can happen in seconds.
Kilgore: We’re talking minutes, right [to the intersection]?
Kilgore: Can we have this type of memory failure in that short a period of time?
Kilgore: Even shorter?
Brewer: Absolutely. Lots of things can happen in your brain within a matter of seconds.
In August, 2017, Karen Osorio-Martinez, a senior research scientist at Procter & Gamble, forgot that her 15-month-old daughter was in the car as she drove to work. Karen’s home was a five-minute drive to her office.
In March, 2010, Reggie McKinnon forgot that his 17-month-old daughter was in the car as he drove to work. Payton’s day care was one block from his office.
Dr. David Diamond,a neuroscientist who began studying hot car deaths in 2004, concurs with Dr. Brewer. ” Harris had breakfast with Cooper only a half mile from his workplace. How can a father forget his son is in the car in only a half-mile drive? Consider a man who places a cup of soda on the roof of the car and then searches his pockets for the keys. His habit memory is immediately activated upon finding the keys; he gets in the car and drives off, having completely lost awareness of the cup on the roof. The comparison of a forgotten child to a cup of soda may offend our sensibilities, but the cases I’ve studied indicate that the brain processes involved in forgotten children and material objects are disturbingly similar. It appears that the memory of the child in the car is blocked instantly and that memory can be suppressed for an entire day.”
Dr. Diamond explains false memory with an example. Let’s say you want to stop for groceries on your way home from work. Your plan (prospective memory) is to stop at the grocery store, but you drive right by the store and walk in the door empty-handed. What happened? The part of your brain that stores habit and routine (driving straight home from work) won out over the part of your brain that stores prospective memory (your plan to stop for groceries). It happens to all of us at one time or another.
Dr. David Diamond
Kilgore: I’ve taken my child to daycare four or five times a week for a year. I have a lot of memories of doing that very thing. Are you saying that we might think we remember dropping our child off, because we’ve just done it so much?
Brewer: Think about shampooing your hair or brushing your teeth in the morning. You know you did it, but are you really sure? It’s an assumption made based on routine behavior. The parent believes that the child is at day care. This hasn’t happened only in Ross’s case. In other cases where parents have had this tragedy happen to them, they report the same experience. Some of them even go back to the day care to pick up the child.
A false memory is consistent with Ross’s answer when questioned at the scene.
Piper: What time were you suppose to drop him off at day care?
Ross: Around nine. I swore I dropped him off. I thought I did.
CHANGE in ROUTINE
Dr. Diamond, Janette Fennel, and countless other experts who have studied hot car deaths say that forgetting a child in the car is almost always due to a change in routine. Ross’s routine was day care, Chick-fil-A drive-through, work. Over and over and over again.
Brewer: This route that he takes to work is his routine behavior, that’s his habit. He would generally take his son to the Little Apron Academy, then he’d go to Chick-fil-A, then he would go to work, and so that’s a well-worn path. Also, that path is even more well-worn because he’d often eat at Publix [and Chick-fil-A for lunch]. So not only is he getting this information that “I’m going to work” in the mornings when he does Chick-fil-A, but he’s also getting it when he goes to Publix. When I’m on this road, this is naturally the way that I go.
Excerpts from Kids and Cars
Andrea Boe, Kate’s mother.
Kate went to a different daycare so I was going to drop her off before I went to work. Normally, I dropped both girls off, but that day was different and so I took a different route to work – a route I normally took when I was alone… In my mind, I had dropped Kate off. After work, I went to her daycare to pick her up; only then did I realize she was still in my van.
Kristi Cavaliero, Sophia Rayne’s mom: Then our perpetual nightmare began. For reasons we do not know or understand, Brett drove past the turn that he would normally take to drop Ray Ray off at daycare. A simple left hand turn, beyond which daycare is only about 300 yards away. He turned right instead. Why? This is a question that will haunt us forever. Brett continued his drive to work, assuming that our daughter was safely in the hands of her daycare teachers.
Dr. Jodie Edwards, Jenna’s Mom: Somehow, and I know it is hard to understand, my brain flipped a switch as I continued my drive toward work. As the remaining 15 minutes passed, I went from knowing she was in the backseat to firmly believing she was safely at the babysitter’s.
Mark Warschauer: On that day, after a change of my usual morning routine, I lost my concentration and by force of habit drove to work instead of daycare. Mikey, meanwhile, had fallen asleep in the back. I got out of the car without remembering he was there, walked up to my office, and shattered all our dreams.