Shortly after her daughter’s death, Raychele Jackson planted a pink magnolia tree in the front yard of her southeast Roanoke house.
Intermixed with the soil were some of her daughter’s ashes. In a sense, it’s a way for Jackson and her husband to watch their little girl grow up.
Two-year-old River Jackson died after being left for hours in a van on Aug. 31 — the hottest day that month, at 90 degrees in the early afternoon. A police investigation found that the girl’s father had taken several children in the van to pick up another child and stopped for food. When they arrived at the house, everyone hopped out and River was left behind. A search of the neighborhood ensued before Raychele Jackson discovered her daughter in the back seat of the van.
“My husband thinks he left her in the van, while others remember seeing her in the house,” Jackson said. “We don’t know if those are just false memories, something our mind created to kind of help us cope. That way we didn’t have to blame my husband for doing something like that.”
The commonwealth’s attorney didn’t charge the parents, saying the death did not seem to result from an intentional act or seem to be done with malice. It was an accident. Jackson said her husband did not feel ready to talk for this story.
Since River’s death, Jackson has gotten involved with Kids and Cars, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for increased car safety for children, raising awareness about issues including vehicles backing over children and vehicle-induced heat stroke, which has already claimed the lives of 11 children this year across the country. And she started River’s Mission, a community advocacy program in honor of her daughter. Jackson sets up a table at neighborhood block parties or events, like the one she’s doing this coming weekend, to educate people about the problem.
Some of the strongest advocates of raising awareness are those who have experienced the worst outcome.
“I want to do everything I can to prevent this from happening to someone else,” Jackson said. “I didn’t even know this problem existed until it happened to our family, so I was educated in the worst possible way.”
The Jacksons mostly coped with the tragedy alone.
“My friends and family didn’t know what to say to me,” Jackson said. “I felt like people were judging me, thinking we didn’t love our daughter, so I was isolated.”
She spent hours researching what happened to her daughter. She stumbled upon Kids and Cars, made a donation in her daughter’s name, then reached out to the organization, which provided her information about hyperthermia.
Then Mary Parks got in touch with her.
The Blacksburg woman was charged with involuntary manslaughter and felony child neglect after leaving her almost 2-year-old child, Juan Parks, in the car while she went to work on Sept. 7, 2007. The charges were dropped in 2009 after the commonwealth’s attorney’s office didn’t find that there was enough evidence to proceed with charges.
“I totally took 100 percent responsibility because he died in my care,” Parks said. “But I didn’t do it on purpose. But the mother in me was very guilty and I was very concerned that I let my son down and my husband down and my other son down.”
Since her son’s death, Parks, 52, has been involved with Kids and Cars in the hopes that she can educate people on how to avoid what happened to her and her son. She helps maintain the organization’s database of children who have died from hyperthermia in vehicles, and she talks to people who forgot their child in a car or know someone who did.
“I talked to another mother this had happened to, and it helped with the healing process,” Parks said. “So when Kids and Cars has someone reach out to them looking for someone to talk to, they’ll give that person my phone number.”
Between 1991 and 2013, an average of 37 children died of vehicular heat stroke in the U.S. each year, according to data compiled by Kids and Cars. Last year, 32 children died, and there were many more close calls. In most cases, parents unknowingly left their child in the vehicle. About 33 percent of children crawled in on their own, while 12 percent of parents knowingly left their child in the vehicle, such as locking a child inside while they went into a grocery store, according to Kids and Cars. It’s unclear how many result in criminal proceedings.
“The biggest mistake a parent can make is to think it can’t happen to them,” said Susan Auriemma, vice president of Kids and Cars.
Like Jackson, Lyn Balfour didn’t know it could happen to her until March 30, 2007. The Charlottesville mother was having an atypical day. Her 9-month-old son was sick, she was exhausted from taking care of him, he dozed off in a car seat that wasn’t in its usual spot in the vehicle, and the list goes on. When the babysitter called to ask where Bryce was, Balfour realized he was still in the car in the parking lot of where she worked.
She said she cradled Bryce’s body in her arms at the hospital and promised him she would do whatever she could to educate people so no other parents would make the mistake she made.
“If I can get one person to change their habits and say, ‘That can happen to me,’ then I’ve done what I’ve promised my son,” said Balfour, 44.
Public safety groups have urged auto manufacturers to install technology alerting people to a child sitting in a back seat, but issues of reliability, liability, cost and regulatory guidelines have hindered their efforts. Wal-Mart and Evenflo recently announced a new infant car seat with technology designed to remind drivers of their backseat passengers, but Balfour is pessimistic that the problem can change without auto regulations.
“The challenge you have is people are still not going to buy it, because they don’t think it can happen to you,” Balfour said.
The “it can’t happen to me” mentality is what those who are speaking up hope they can change. Balfour accepts any media requests to talk. Parks attends events. Jackson is beginning to put herself out there. She is hosting an awareness event Saturday in Roanoke, and Roanoke Fire-EMS will also be there to help check car seats.
“I’m doing this for River,” she said. “It’s kind of like a healing process for me. I know the pain will never go away.”