Assistant Provost and Professor Jennifer Collins tells The Tennessean mothers face charges in hot car child deaths more often
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August 13, 2012
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In recent days, two Middle Tennessee mothers left their young children inside hot vehicles, only to find them dead hours later.
The horrible incidents unfolded within a week of each other, and both mothers appeared heartbroken in the aftermath: One was taken, inconsolable, to a hospital; the other was put on suicide watch while being held in jail.
Beneath the obvious common elements, though, the unrelated cases showed signs of heading down divergent paths. And while the legal outcome isn’t certain in either case, as police and prosecutors piece details together, the decisions that confront them are among the most heart-wrenching they will face — and the conclusions they reach are guided by objective and intuitive factors.
Detectives first study the basics: what the parent was doing and thinking; the sequence of events and locations; what he or she said to people nearby, to 911 dispatchers, and to the interviewing officers. They also consider the intangibles that point to how the parent cared for the child: what else was in the car; signs of what life was like inside the home; even the work schedules and habits of the parents or caregivers.
Whether they know it or not, some investigators allow biases to creep into their work, says Jennifer Collins, a professor of law at Wake Forest University who analyzed deaths of children in hot cars and resulting prosecutions.
She found that mothers face charges more often than fathers, nonfamily caregivers more often than parents, and low-income parents more often than high-income ones.
“These are incredibly difficult and painful cases. And for everyone involved, including the parents, prosecutors and police, it’s incredibly difficult to decide what to do,” Collins said. “Prosecutors need to proceed carefully and consciously. Sometimes inappropriate biases do play a role.”
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