'Forgotten baby syndrome' can happen to any one of us

"People say it's 'impossible' to forget your child is in the car. But I know that for sleep-deprived parents who are out ...
"People say it's 'impossible' to forget your child is in the car. But I know that for sleep-deprived parents who are out of their normal routine, it's all too easy." Photo: Getty Images

When my third child was two months old, I strapped her into her car seat, then promptly forgot all about her.

It was a Friday, and I’d fallen into a comfortable routine with my neighbour, who would come and sit with my baby while I collected my two older daughters from daycare. The pattern was always the same: the neighbour would come, we’d chat for a bit, and I’d leave in plenty of time to get my big girls their Friday night treat of fish and chips before I picked them up.  Then I’d come home and collect my baby and all would be well.

Except this day was different, because on this day, the neighbour did not come. 

So I strapped the baby into the car and drove the 15 minutes to the fish and chip shop. I ordered and sat down and flicked through a few magazines, happy for a few moments of peace before the chaos of the night time routine. The shop was busy that day, and the order took around 15 minutes. I remember feeling quite cheerful as I walked back towards the car, thinking of my big girls, and how excited they were going to be to see their baby sister when they got home. 

And then I remembered that she wasn’t at home. 

The rush of adrenalin as panic catapulted me towards that car faster than I have ever moved in my life will stay with me for the rest of my days. And there was my baby, strapped into her capsule, sleeping peacefully and blissfully unaware of my emotional turmoil. Alive and well, because it was winter, and I was lucky.

Bendigo mother Jayde Poole was not so lucky. Her five-month-old daughter Bella perished in a hot car in December 2012. On a 30 degree day, at a time her daughter was normally at home and in bed asleep, Jayde decided to drive to a nearby Hungry Jacks to get dinner for her six-year-old son. She decided to leave Bella in her cot, at the home she shared with her parents, while she went out for this short time. None of us would have ever heard of Jayde and Bella Poole if that is what she had actually done, because at some stage Jayde Poole changed her mind about this. Instead, she strapped her daughter into the car seat, put her son in the car, and backed out of the driveway. Her baby later remained in the car, where she died. 

After she was found not guilty of manslaughter this week, her defence barrister Shane Gardener said that Ms Poole had suffered from “forgotten baby syndrome”, and that she had made the trip to Hungry Jacks on “auto-pilot” – a trip she had made many times before. That as soon as she decided to leave Bella at home, in her mind, that is exactly what she had done. She genuinely believed Bella was safely asleep in her cot.

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This morning I have read comments on several articles that have heaped judgment and vitriol on Jayde Poole. People have gone as far as to say she willfully murdered her child, as surely as though she had set out to do it, that there are NO excuses for leaving a child in a car. That it would be simply “impossible” to do so, as they themselves had never done it.

But I am here to tell you that it IS possible, and it can happen to anyone. For a period of some 30 minutes, from the time I had strapped my own baby into the car, and had gone into my own sleep-deprived “auto-pilot” mode, to leaving that take away food shop, I thought for all the world that my baby was at home with my neighbour, as she always was on a Friday. 

There is significant public outrage at the ‘not guilty’ verdict in Jayde Poole’s case, and there are calls for her to be put in prison. But what purpose would that serve? She will pay for this lapse for the rest of her days. Every birthday. Every Christmas. The day her daughter would have started school. Every time she catches sight of a child who would be the same age as Bella would be now. Every day. 

Jayde Poole already exists in a kind of prison, and while it was the result of a tragic accident, it’s one that she knows is a prison of her own making. And for a grieving mother, there could be no greater punishment than that.

This article was updated on 26/7/2014 to claify that Ms Poole's parents were at home caring for her toddler daughter at the time of the incident.

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