By Nicole Young and Brian Haas, The Tennessean
For the second time in less than a week, police responded Tuesday to the heat-related death of a child in Middle Tennessee.
Metro police were called to Donelson Heights United Methodist Church, 84 Fairway Drive, just before 3 p.m. on a report that a 5-month-old baby had been found dead inside a minivan in the parking lot.
The child's mother, Stephanie Gray, 38, was so distraught that she had to be taken to a local hospital. She has not been charged, but investigators said they would be consulting with the district attorney's office regarding the case.
The child's father, who was not named, also went to the hospital, police said, but it was not clear if he went for treatment or to see his wife.
Police spokeswoman Kristin Mumford said Gray arrived at the church about 2:30 p.m. to pick up her son, 5-month-old Joel Gray. When workers told her that the baby had not been dropped off there that morning, Gray ran to her minivan and found Joel in his rear car seat inside the vehicle, police said.
Gray ran back into the day care center with the baby in her arms, but police said he was already dead from the extreme heat inside the vehicle.
Temperatures in Nashville on Tuesday reached 93 degrees, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Richards.
"With an outside air temperature in the low 90s, the inside air temperature of the car could have been on the order of 135-plus degrees," said Jan Null, an adjunct professor of meteorology at San Francisco State University who has done research on the subject. "Objects or a person inside the car in direct sunlight would have been significantly hotter."
Investigators have learned that Gray dropped off two of her children, ages 6 and 9, at school and then returned home to pick up her 11-year-old and Joel. It was not clear whether an adult had been with them.
She dropped the 11-year-old off at school and then returned home, apparently without realizing that she hadn't dropped off Joel.
She told police she had been home all day, with her minivan parked in the driveway, until she went to the church. On Tuesday evening, the church had left a message for parents saying its day care program would be closed today because of an emergency situation. The program could remain closed for the rest of the week, the message said.
"It's very tragic," said the Rev. Jim Hamilton, pastor of Donelson Heights. "My heart is with them."
Hamilton said he did not know the Grays, but he did know the children's grandmother and he had not yet spoken to her. The day care at Donelson Heights had been operating for three decades and includes roughly 40 children ranging in age from infant to preschool, he said.
Monday was Joel Gray's first day there, police said.
Janette Fennell, president and founder of the Kansas City, Kan.,-based KidsAndCars.org, a leading resource on cases in which children die in hot cars, said charges are filed in about 60 percent of child death cases. It's rare, however, for a parent to be convicted.
"I think some people charge them because they think they have to," Fennell said. "I can assure you that if this has happened to anyone you might as well just consider it a life sentence. These parents have put themselves in jail for the rest of their lives, they just happen to be walking free."
23rd case this year
Last week, Samantha Harper, 25, of Smyrna told investigators that she put her two children, Daniel Marise, 3, and Savannah Marise, 2, in her car, went back inside her home and then fell asleep. Both children died, and she was charged with two counts of especially aggravated child abuse.
Null said Joel Gray's death was the 23rd such death in the nation this year and the fifth in Tennessee. Last year there were 33 juvenile vehicular hyperthermia deaths nationwide, none in Tennessee.
In his 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning story, "Fatal Distraction," Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten probed the scope of the problem, finding that parents who left children to die in hot cars don't always fit a specific profile. They included doctors, educators and scientists. In one case, Mary Parks of Blacksburg, Md., drove to her child's day care center after work only to find the child dead in the back seat.
"The memory experts tell us that if you have the ability to forget your cell phone or forget where your keys are, that just shows your brain has the capability of also forgetting that there's a child in the back seat," Fennell said. "Our brain doesn't differentiate one from the other. The worst thing parents can ever do is think it can't happen to them."