How does a parent just “forget” their child?

The Ladybugs Child Care Centre
The Ladybugs Child Care Centre




It’s a story that’s almost too tragic to tell.

A Perth dad drives to a childcare centre in Helena Valley to collect his 11-month-old son.

He walks into the Ladybugs Early Learning Centre and asks the staff for his son, only to be told that the boy never arrived at day care that morning.

No one dropped him off.


Only minutes later, the 11 month old is found strapped into the car seat of his dad’s Honda Civic.

He’s not breathing.

Staff from the childcare centre try desperately to administer first aid and CPR to the unresponsive child, but nothing works.

He’s gone.


Police investigating the baby’s death are not treating it as suspicious.

“At this time the child’s death is not being treated as a homicide, however inquiries into the circumstances leading up to the child’s death are continuing,” a police spokesperson told the media.

It’s believed the child might have been in the car all day and that his father may have simply “forgotten” to drop him off at day care.

News outlets are reporting that the man might have gone into something of an auto-pilot mode. That he drove to work, parked the car for the day (on a day when the temperature reached a maximum of 26°C ) and only realised the fatal mistake when he arrived at the day care centre.

The question many parents are now asking is how? How does a parent forget their child?

It’s a question that was answered in the 2009 Pulitzer Prizewinning Washington Post article, Fatal Distraction.

The article explored the phenomenon of doting, dedicated, good parents, forgetting that their children are in the back seat and leaving them inside the car. It happens to 15-25 kids every year in the US:

The wealthy do it, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

The article goes on to explain:

British psychologist James Reason coined the term the “Swiss Cheese Model” in 1990 to explain through analogy why catastrophic failures can occur in organizations despite multiple layers of defense. Reason likens the layers of memory to slices of Swiss cheese, piled upon each other, five or six deep. The holes represent small, potentially insignificant weaknesses. Things will totally collapse only rarely, he says, but when they do, it is by coincidence — when all the holes happen to align so that there is a breach through the entire system.

The same model applies to these situations.

A daycare arrangement changes. Another child needs to get to school early. Someone from work calls. A side trip to the supermarket occurs. If enough of these distractions align, there can be a big enough hole left that the baby in the backseat  is forgotten about.

The article interviews a range of parents who have done just that: left their child in the backseat only to realise when it was too late. Some are ruined by grief. Others assert that what they did was an accident, and that they shouldn’t be blamed.

Michael Carr Gregg
Michael Carr Gregg

We spoke to well-known psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg about whether there is anything parents can do to avoid being affected by Fatal Distraction Phenomena.

“As someone who has had two boys, I really do think that this could happen to any of us,” he said

“Research suggests that it doesn’t really happen that often,” he said. “But the bad news is that it’s incredibly difficult to predict when it is going to happen.

“It happens out of the blue.”

Just like the article from the Washington Post, Carr-Gregg reaffirmed that Fatal Distraction Phenomena is something that could happen to any parent – no matter how well educated or mindful they may be – and that it’s a function of being incredibly busy.

“Just about the only way in which you could 100 per cent guarantee that his could never happen to you, is to be anal and have a list.”

“It’s unfortunate, and rare, and it’s going to be interesting to see whether this guy is charged with manslaughter or whether his defence stands up.”

Our thoughts are with the relatives of the young boy.


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