When Hannah Rhudy heard the news last summer that 5-month-old twins died in Chesterfield County after their father unknowingly left them in his vehicle, right outside their apartment building, she was so upset that she had to do something about it.
“It really bothered me personally,” said the 14-year-old, who lives in Chesterfield with her parents and two sisters. “I’ve always loved kids and babysitting and teaching them at my church has really been a big part of me growing up.”
Since 1990, more than 900 children have died nationwide of vehicular heatstroke after their parents or caregivers went to work, or walked inside their homes, and left them in the back seat. A record number of 52 children — four from Virginia — died in 2018 and there have been 21 deaths so far this year, according to Kids and Cars, a national group that focuses on ways to prevent child deaths in and around vehicles.
On July 16, a female infant died on Richmond’s South Side in a heat-related incident. A witness said authorities removed a car seat containing the infant from a vehicle.
Experts call it “forgotten baby syndrome” and say it’s a problem with memory, not negligence. When a parent is tired, stressed or distracted, the part of the brain that works on auto-pilot takes over, suppressing the part of the brain that allows for changes in routine, like dropping off a child at day care when the other parent can’t do it.
Deaths occur throughout the year but increase in the summer, not just because of the heat, but also because of changes in family habits because of vacations. Many times, when a child died in a car, there had been a change in the family’s daily routine, said David Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida who has studied the syndrome.
No matter the explanation, Hannah was upset that no one had come up with ways to prevent more deaths. One day, as she thought about the baby brother and sister who died in their SUV, she spotted a handicap tag inside a car.
“I thought that was a great way to get the message across,” she said.
She developed BabyIn BabyOut, a two-sided tag to hang from a vehicle’s rear-view mirror. The BabyIn side is hot pink and features a simple drawing of a frowning round face. It reminds parents that in 10 minutes, the vehicle can heat up enough to kill a child, left alone inside.
The BabyOut side is neon green, has a happy face and the reminder to “always look before you lock.”
Drivers are encouraged to keep the BabyIn side facing them when the child is in the car, and flip it when they take the baby out.
Hannah has partnered with law enforcement officers and first responders, hospital officials and day care centers in the Richmond area to distribute the tags, and she’s branching out to the Fredericksburg area as well.
Parents, grandparents, caregivers and business owners who would like to distribute them can get the hangtags through her website, babyinbabyout.org. There’s no charge; she finds community partners to cover printing and postage.
“I definitely wanted the solution to be free,” said Hannah, a rising ninth-grader at James River High School. “This is the type of tragedy that affects every type of family and every demographic.”
Hannah, her family and friends have helped distribute more than 5,000 tags to community events and have mailed them to 30 states. Last week, they got a shipment of 20,000 more. Of that total, 7,500 will go to Child Care Aware of Virginia, the campaign’s largest community partner so far, said Hannah’s father, Jonathan Rhudy.
Child Care Aware helps families choose quality child care, and Executive Director Angela Whirt had been looking for the best way to launch a campaign about deaths in hot cars. The agency had material from Kids and Cars, and “along comes Hannah’s project, and it was just perfect,” Whirt said.
“We were just blown away by the fact this is a 14-year-old girl who’s come up with this idea,” Whirt said. “It’s really impressive, just for her to be so socially conscious that she’s willing to take action.”
While Kids and Cars is working with legislators on high-tech solutions to the problem, such as mandating that all new cars have sensors to detect the presence of a child unknowingly left in a vehicle, Hannah’s hangtags are a good low-tech solution, said Goochland County Sheriff Jim Agnew.
One of his officers, the father of two young children, investigated the death of a 17-month-old boy who was left in the car all day while his father worked at the Capital One campus in Goochland. It was Aug. 8, 2018, and the dad had forgotten to drop off the baby at day care.
“I think the hardest part of it was, they were good parents and they were absolutely devastated by this,” the sheriff said. “It was just a terrible tragedy.”
Agnew said it’s hard to understand how or why a parent can forget about a child in the back seat, “but I think you have to acknowledge that it does happen.”
Hannah’s done just that and has “made it her mission to do everything she can to bring awareness to the issue,” Agnew said.
The sheriff hopes the hangtags will be well-distributed — Hannah would like to send them nationwide — and that anyone who sees the tag will peek inside the vehicle to make sure there’s no child left behind.
“We never want to be involved in something like that again,” Agnew said.