Andrew Sandstrom piled the six kids – ages 7 and under – into the family minivan and dropped his wife off at work, then returned to their Moorhead apartment.
Four hours later, Sandstrom realized that the family's youngest, 5-month-old Christiana, was still in the van. He returned to the vehicle, removed the girl from her car seat, and brought her into the apartment, where efforts to revive her failed.
Police say Christiana died at the scene Tuesday night in what they believe is another case of a child left in a hot vehicle.
“We realize they are in heavy grieving right now,” said Police Lt. Tory Jacobson, referring to 24-year-old Andrew and Shayna Sandstrom, 27, and the children they are raising at the apartment in the 1100 block of 19th Street S.
Jacobson said it’s his department’s obligation to investigate the circumstances leading to Christiana’s death and forward their findings to prosecutors for possible charges in what the lieutenant views as “an accidental death” caused by the father simply forgetting he had left the baby behind in her car seat.
Jacobson said more details about Christiana's death, such as whether the windows were all the way up on the van at the time, would come out later.
Temperatures in the Moorhead area climbed into the low 80s by late afternoon and into the early evening, according to the National Weather Service. It was about 8:20 p.m. when Andrew Sandstrom called police.
“It’s so tragic,” Jacobson said, “even with windows that would be cracked open, clearly, we all know that a vehicle that isn’t running with the air conditioning on,” the temperature inside can climb sharply and quickly.
“Even in the shade,” he added, “on a day that doesn’t seem that hot, it gets deadly hot [in a vehicle], especially for an extended period of time.”
Counting this case, there have been at least nine deaths in the United States this year attributed to children being left in hot vehicles, according to KidsAndCars.org, a nonprofit group based in Kansas that persuaded the federal government to track non-traffic tragedies involving children and vehicles.
The group said there were 32 “hot car” fatalities nationwide involving children last year and an uncharacteristically high 49 in 2010.
The morning after Christiana’s death, Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek issued an e-mail addressing the dangers of leaving children unattended in vehicles, noting that even in mild weather a vehicle's interior “can quickly become deadly.”
Stanek pointed out that children are particularly vulnerable because their bodies heat up three to five times faster than an adult’s.
His advice to parents and other caregivers includes never leaving a child in a vehicle, even for a moment. He also suggested a reminder strategy to avoid leaving a child behind in a vehicle: Place an item such as a purse or briefcase in the back seat, making it more likely for the driver to check in back before exiting.
Amber Rollins, director and volunteer manager for KidsAndCars.org, said children that being accidently left behind is a very misunderstood issue.
New parents often aren’t getting enough sleep, are stressed out, mothers are going through hormone changes and “our human brains don’t function as they normally would under those circumstances.”
“Parents make these kinds of inadvertent mistakes every day, but it doesn’t always cost them the life of their child,” Rollins said. “You know, you forget to pick up your kid from soccer practice. It’s the same thing. They just happened to be in a safer place when it happened.”
The worst thing parents can do, she said, is think that it can’t happen to them.
“It’s the loving, caring, responsible, educated parents that this is happening to,” she said. “None of these parents who have forgotten their child ever thought that they were capable of doing it. They never had to protect their child from their own stressed out brain.”
Rollins estimates that nationally, charges are brought against the parent or caretaker about half of the time. How many are actually convicted is unknown.
“If you look at the data, there’s really no rhyme or reason for if or why parents are charged,” she said. “You could take the exact same situation, two different cases. One parent would be charged with felony child neglect and another parent wouldn’t be charged at all.”
Star Tribune staff writer Lydia Coutre contributed to this report.