Protecting Kids from Heatstroke in Cars: Q&A with Grieving Mom & Advocate Kristie Reeves

In May 2011, Sophia Rayne Cavaliero celebrated her first birthday with more than 60 friends and family members. Ten days later, on a hot Austin, Texas morning, the unthinkable happened: “Ray Ray,” as she was known to doting parents Brett and Kristie, was on her way to daycare in her father’s car when he forgot to drop her off, accidentally leaving Sophia in the car. The heat of the day overcame Sophia, and by the time she was pulled from the car she was unable to be saved, despite the resuscitation efforts of both her mother and emergency personnel. Tragically, baby “Ray Ray” died of hyperthermia, commonly known as heatstroke.

Sophia’s mother, Kristie Reeves, who is “just trying to survive” in the aftermath of her family’s loss, graciously agreed to talk with National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition (HMHB) and our partner Safe Kids USA about her experience, and the advocacy efforts she hopes will make a difference.

Q. Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about your daughter?

A. Brett and I were older parents, so we thought this might be our only shot at having a child. We went on an expedition to find a really powerful name. Sophia Rayne means ‘wise, thoughtful and powerful leader.’ And there truly was something different about her. She was developmentally advanced and was so balanced. She acted as if she had been here before. Everyone who met her said she was unique.

Q. It must be tremendously difficult to talk about your experience. Yet, you have made an immediate commitment to educate others about the issue. How do you find the strength?

A. Both my husband and I hope to make a difference for other families and parents like us. This is not on people’s radar like other safety concerns. It’s amazing to look around our house and see all the carefully planned precautions – the baby locks on my cabinets, the gates. We have a pool, and we were obsessive about pool safety. Hyperthermia is something parents aren’t talking about in the same way. But we should be. My husband idolized our daughter and was a fantastic dad. She was his life. I have to forgive him, because I know I could have just as easily made the same mistake. I hope our speaking out about what happened to our daughter helps people who might be pointing fingers or criminalizing us understand that this can and does happen to good parents.

Q. What should parents and caregivers do to prevent a heatstroke tragedy?

A. Parents, babysitters and other caregivers should never leave a child in a car unattended – not even for a minute, and not even on “cool” days. Cracking the window doesn’t help. What does help is routinely leaving a purse, briefcase or cell phone in the back seat near the child, creating an extra reason to check the back seat before leaving the car.

Q. Can daycare centers and other childcare providers play a role in prevention?

A. Yes. Preventing these tragedies is certainly the primary responsibility of the parent or caregiver who is driving the car and transporting the child, but with the help of daycare providers we can save some lives. That’s why we have created “Ray Ray’s Pledge.”

Q. What is “Ray Ray’s Pledge”?

A. It is a parent/caregiver contract we have developed to encourage better communication about a child’s whereabouts, with the goal of preventing tragedies like the one we have experienced. “Ray Ray’s Pledge” is a joint effort with Safe Kids Austin that will launch in Central Texas in late August 2011. It’s a simple, detachable pledge card. Parents commit that says they will “notify the childcare provider in advance if a child will be late or absent, or if someone else will be dropping him/her off,” and that they will “inform the childcare provider of any changes in emergency contact information.” The childcare provider commits that he/she “will call if a child doesn’t arrive by his/her usual drop-off time,” and that he/she “will periodically check with parents to update emergency contact information.”

Our daughter’s preschool is already using it – as are several other daycare franchises in Texas – and the parents are thrilled. I can only think that providers who use the Pledge will be more attractive to potential parents. The added safety net is a selling point.

Q. How did “Ray Ray’s Pledge” come about?

A. I saw a need. And within three weeks of my daughter’s death, I had put the wheels in motion. I’d get up at 3 a.m. – I couldn’t sleep – and go online to gather information about vehicle-related hyperthermia. The stories I read were just like ours. An overwhelming number of these children were forgotten on the way to daycare or preschool. I know our daughter would have been saved if the daycare had a policy to call when a child doesn’t show up. It seems like a tremendous oversight. There are several safety mechanisms in place to protect kids from being picked up at the end of the day by unauthorized individuals, but we seem to have overlooked the importance of safe drop-offs and knowing the child’s whereabouts in the morning.

Q: Do you envision a day when “Ray Ray’s Pledge” prompts legislation, making it mandatory to call parents if their child doesn’t show up when expected?

A. I don’t. The problem with making it regulatory is that it sends the wrong message by making it punishable. My goal is to partner with daycare teachers to embrace a dual commitment to communication, so that a safety net is created to help during times when parents might be vulnerable to human error. I don’t want this to be a dusty law on the books. And besides, what’s the punishment? There’s nothing worse than losing a child.

HMHB and Safe Kids USA thank Kristie for sharing her family’s story. Learn the facts about this issue – and how you can help prevent child deaths from heatstroke in vehicles:

What heatstroke is:
Heatstroke, clinically known as hyperthermia, occurs when the body’s thermostat is overloaded by heat. It may cause symptoms including dizziness; disorientation; agitation or sluggishness; confusion; rapid heartbeat; hot, dry skin that is flushed but not sweaty; loss of consciousness or even death.

Why children are at increased risk for heatstroke in vehicles:
Child deaths from heatstroke in cars are not as rare as you might think – and there are more and more of these deaths each year. Kids under age four are especially vulnerable, because their bodies can overheat up to five times faster than adults. And the inside of a car heats up a lot faster than the temperature outside, acting like a greenhouse. In just 20 minutes a vehicle can heat up by 29 degrees – so it doesn’t have to be hot outside for heatstroke to happen in a vehicle.

How and why this is happening to children:
There are three main ways that children are at risk in unattended cars. A minority of about 18% of cases involve a child intentionally left alone by a driver as they run an errand, and in about 30% of cases children climb into an unlocked car or trunk to play and are overcome by heat. But in more than half of cases, a child is forgotten by a distracted driver when arriving at a destination. This frequently happens on a day when there has been a change in the family’s normal routine, and often involves a missed stop at daycare to drop the child off.

What you can do:
Each of us can have a positive impact on preventing child deaths from heatstroke by using safeguard reminders when transporting children, never leaving a child alone in a vehicle (even for a moment) and by talking openly about this issue with friends, family and colleagues. Professionals who work with children and families can share the prevention message as part of comprehensive safety education. You can also promote “Ray Ray’s Pledge” with a daycare provider in your area. Send email to This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 202.662.0600 to get involved in this effort. Together, we can save lives.

For more facts about heatstroke and how to prevent it, visit the Safe Kids website. To learn more about the pledge and how you can take action, visit the Ray Ray’s Pledge website. For more about Sophia, Kristie and Brett invite you to visit her website.