Why We Must Have Empathy for Parents Like Juan Rodriguez

A child dying in the back seat of a car is horrifying. It is also random, and could happen to any of us.

Juan Rodriguez looking anguished, standing with his arms behind his back in court.
New York father Juan Rodriguez pleaded not guilty to two counts each of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide after his twin infants were found dead in a hot car.
© 2019 Thomson Reuters

One-year-old twins Phoenix and Luna Rodriguez died after being left in a hot car in Kingsbridge, New York, last Friday. Their father forgot to drop them at their day care on his way to work. They were the 22nd and 23rd children to die trapped in cars this year, and they have already been joined on the list of such fatalities by a 24th child, 2-year-old Noah Sneed of Oakland Park, Florida. Not every hot-car death of a child is a mistake, though the majority are. (It is also a very rare way for a child to die.) Judging by all available evidence, the Rodriguez deaths were a classic accidental case: an overtired and stressed parent, a brain that went on autopilot with tragic results. “He couldn’t explain it,” a friend of Juan Rodriguez, their father, told the New York Times. “In his mind he dropped them off.”

Encountering such news stories in the past, I couldn’t stop thinking about how this could easily happen to me. This time, I seem to have moved on to a new state: total and complete fury at anyone who believes it couldn’t happen to them too. Deep in the bowels of Twitter, you can find all kinds of people in the powerful grip of the just-world fallacy, the idea that bad things only happen to people who deserve it. Here’s one parent who is sure of his infallibility: “As a father I don’t understand how any clear-headed parent could just dispense with their paternal instincts and totally forget about their kids.” Here are some bloodthirsty comments that assume Juan Rodriguez—who is by all appearances distraught beyond belief—must have done this on purpose: “That shit is NOT an accident”; “I have 2 young kids that I also drop off at day care every morning before work … I don’t buy this scumbags story for one second … stop it. He should burn.” And then there are the ones presuming that legal consequences, like the ones the Bronx District Attorney’s Office proposes to inflict via its charges of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and endangering the welfare of a child, could do anything to “teach a lesson” to this unfortunate man: “He didn’t do it on purpose but he killed his babies. It’s tragic as manslaughter often is. He has to be held accountable as what about his next kids?”

I don’t always (or even often) get lost in replies from random people to tweets about news stories, but when a tragedy like this pulls one person out of the crowd and into the spotlight, I cannot help but look back at the rest of the crowd to see how it has reacted. As anyone fixated on the phenomenon of accidental hot-car deaths already knows, Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize a decade ago for his unforgettable story on accidental hot-car deaths, which carefully explained how any stressed-out parent—mother or father, young or old, rich or poor, detail-oriented or scatter-brained—might make this mistake. (I’ve seen at least one heroic Twitter user go through and reply to every parent-blamer in a Rodriguez-related thread with the link.) Weingarten had observed that online comments to a Post article on a 2008 accidental hot-car death were marked by “frothing vitriol,” so he asked a psychologist, Ed Hickling, why that was. Here’s what Hickling said:

We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don’t want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters.

To this, I’d add that when it comes to parenting, Americans want to believe that it’s possible to be a superhuman who “does it all.” Accidental hot-car deaths vividly contradict this idea. They are random, yes, but stress is a common denominator. Rodriguez’s morning schedule included a commute, two different day care drop-offs, and an 8 a.m. arrival at work, all after parenting a 4-year-old and two 1-year-olds through what could quite conceivably have been a very chopped-up night of sleep. That sounds completely unsustainable. Thursday and Friday are the most common days for hot-car deaths caused by parental forgetfulness, according to a study by meteorologist Jan Null. Perhaps this is because people might be drained and at their limit right before the weekend. We talk a lot about how unforgiving the United States can be for working parents. This kind of judgmental reaction to a tragedy like the Rodriguezes’ shows why nothing ever changes: “Sleep deprivation is part of the job of parenting. If you can’t handle to job, and love your kids, have someone else raise them so they can live.”

Don’t dwell on these horrible people, you may say. Look to the many who feel that Juan Rodriguez deserves our sympathy. But this utter lack of empathy exists in so many places these days that it’s hard to ignore. “If you traipse your kid 2,000 miles in dangerous conditions you’re not only a criminal, you’re a shitty parent,” Tomi Lahren tweeted on Tuesday, echoing an argument many on the right have made to excuse the practice of separating and imprisoning migrant children as a “deterrent” to desperate parents who may be contemplating seeking asylum in the United States.

It is easy to respond to tragedy by distancing oneself from it. It is harder to grapple with the often utterly random and unfair circumstances that cause it. But unless we want to further contribute to the most unforgiving, unmerciful parts of our culture, we have to try.