In this Thursday, July 24, 2014 photo police tape surrounds a gray car outside a Wichita, Kan., where a 10-month-old girl died after being left inside a
In this Thursday, July 24, 2014 photo police tape surrounds a gray car outside a Wichita, Kan., where a 10-month-old girl died after being left inside a hot car. Authorities said Friday they have arrested the girl's foster parent on suspicion of aggravated endangerment but charges have not been filed. Police said the man had "somehow forgotten" leaving the girl in the back seat after picking her up from the baby sitter late Thursday afternoon. (AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle, Matt Riedl) (Matt Riedl/AP)

SAN JOSE -- Joe Nijmeh stood outside his front door and glanced uneasily at Payne Avenue. It's still difficult for him to look at where the SUV had been parked that day with a 9-month-old child forgotten inside.

"It's been tragic for the whole neighborhood," he said. "Now, we all check on cars. Even if I'm in a parking lot and I see kids in a car, I get concerned. This was terrible, but maybe one good thing is it lets people know to be aware."

Giovanni Alonzo Hernandez died on April 16 after being left all day in the hot vehicle on Payne by his father, who went to work after forgetting to drop him off with a baby sitter.

Heartbreaking stories like this are all too common. So far this year, 18 unattended children have died in vehicles nationally, with 13 of them confirmed as heatstroke victims, according to data compiled by Jan Null, a Bay Area meteorologist and expert on the issue.

July and August -- the heart of the summer -- are when tragedies like this are most likely to happen. And it's why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is sponsoring National Heatstroke Prevention Day on Thursday to raise awareness about the hazards of leaving unattended children in enclosed vehicles. Child safety advocates say it can happen to even the most responsible of parents.


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"The public perception is that children are intentionally left in cars," said Kristie Reeves-Cavaliero, an Austin, Texas, a mother who lost a daughter to heatstroke when she was left in a vehicle. "But the reality is much more terrifying. In the majority of these cases, children are simply forgotten in cars by loving parents."

The consequences can be fatal, even on mild days, because people don't realize how quickly vehicles can become dangerously hot or know that a child's system overheats up to five times faster than an adult's body.

Terrible discovery

Giovanni's parents, who live in Los Gatos, have not spoken publicly. That morning, police said, his father drove to the West San Jose residence, where he picks up a truck a couple times a week to make deliveries as part of his job. The father accidentally left Giovanni in his car seat and didn't discover him until he returned at about 7:15 p.m.

The cause of death was ruled as hyperthermia, or an elevated body temperature. A representative for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office said the investigation into that case should be completed soon.

One-year-old Sophia Rayne "Ray Ray" Cavaliero died much the same way in 2011. Brett Cavaliero took a wrong turn on the way to day care and went directly to work, forgetting that his sleeping daughter was in the vehicle. In the wake of the tragedy, the parents reached out to Null to learn more and then created Ray Ray's Pledge to publicize how often this happens.

"We went through Jan's research, and time and time again these cases involved parents forgetting to drop the child off at day care," Reeves-Cavaliero said. "They were so similar to our story that it was scary. As much as we would like to turn back the hands of time to that day, we can't. We can't undo what's done. But we can help wake up other parents to the problem."

Null, who also is a San Francisco State lecturer, has found that 624 children left in vehicles have died of heatstroke since 1998 -- an average of 38 a year. Last year there were 44 such tragedies. In California, 41 kids have died in that 16-year period.

In 51 percent of these cases, children simply were forgotten. Kids died after playing in unattended vehicles 29 percent of the time. In 18 percent, children were intentionally left in a vehicle -- while the adult ran errands, or visited a bar, and so on.

Last Monday, Livermore police responded to a call that two children, ages 2 and 3, were left unattended in a hot car around 6 p.m. The mother, who was gambling at a nearby casino, was arrested on two misdemeanor child endangerment charges, and the kids were placed into protective custody.

The day Giovanni died, it was not scorching hot -- just 79 degrees. But pleasant weather can be deceiving.

Null conducted a study that found the temperature inside a vehicle will rise 19 degrees in the first 10 minutes. After an hour that day, it would have been 125 degrees.

"We all kind of know, intuitively, that enclosed vehicles get hot," Null said. "But when people actually see the numbers, it's really eye-opening."

Raising awareness

Safety advocates filed a petition with the White House this month that called for the Department of Transportation to do more, including requiring "installation of technology in all vehicles and/or child safety seats to prevent children from being left alone in vehicles."

The number of children deaths is down this year compared to 2013, and Null said that might be in part because of increased media attention.

There has been intense coverage of an Atlanta father who has been charged with murder and child cruelty in a June case for allegedly leaving his 22-month-old son in a sweltering vehicle on purpose. Null said this is the first time he has ever heard of someone being accused of deliberately leaving a child in a vehicle to do them harm.

Back on Payne Avenue, Nijmeh said Giovanni's family, which includes an older brother and sister, is devastated.

"I talk to him about twice a week, and he's still in shock," said Nijmeh, 63. "The brother and sister are having a hard time. And the mother and father, they can't believe this happened. It's so sad."

National Heatstroke Prevention Day on Thursday will feature a "social media conversation." The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and child safety partners will be posting messages on Facebook as well as Twitter, using hashtags #checkforbaby and #heatstrokekills.

SAFETY TIPS
Never leave a child alone in a car, even for a minute.
Place something you'll need, like a cellphone or handbag, in the back seat as reminder that the child is there.
Get in the habit of opening the back door just to make sure a child hasn't been left behind.
Keep a stuffed animal in child's car seat when unoccupied. Then place the toy in front passenger seat when child is in safety seat as a visual reminder that a youngster is in the car.
Make arrangements with day care center or baby sitter to always call if the child has not arrived on a scheduled day.
If you see a child alone in a vehicle, get involved. If the child seems hot or sick, get him or her out or call 911.
Sources: www.kidsandcars.org
and www.safekids.org