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South County boy discovered dead in family's van after mother went to pick him up from day care

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UPDATED at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday with information from medical examiner

A mother of a 1-year-old boy found dead in the family's van apparently went to pick up her son from day care late Monday afternoon only to discover that she had never dropped him off there that morning.

The boy apparently had been left in the vehicle for hours.

That's the account pieced together from day care officials and police in the death of the boy, identified Tuesday night as Tate Mitchell.

An autopsy was performed Tuesday afternoon. But Dr. Mary Case, the St. Louis County medical examiner, on Wednesday said that her office hasn't determined if the baby's death was heat-related.

"We have to do some further investigation before we can say whether it is heat," Case said in an email.

Police said officers from the South County precinct were called to Casa Dia Montessori for a “sick case” about 5 p.m. Monday. Tate was enrolled at the school's day care, at 610 Kinswood Lane in South County, near Interstate 255 and Telegraph Road.

But the boy was already unresponsive when he arrived there in his mother’s van at 4:55 p.m. Monday. 

Donna Tilley, director of Casa Dia Montessori day care, said that “once the mother realized he was unresponsive in her van,” the child was brought inside the day care. They performed CPR to try to revive him and called 911.

“The comments of the call were that a baby was left in a vehicle since the morning and was not breathing,” St. Louis County police Sgt. Shawn McGuire said in a statement. The boy was taken to St. Anthony’s Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

Tate lived in the 5000 block of Ivondale Lane, in South County.

Detectives in the St. Louis County Police Department’s Bureau of Crimes Against Persons are handling the investigation.

Tilley, the day care director, cried as she read to a Post-Dispatch reporter a statement from Rick Deeba, president of Casa Dia Montessori-Kinswood.

“All of our hearts are so saddened by this tragedy,” Deeba’s statement said. “And we grieve with this family at the terrible accidental loss of this child. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers.”

The woman has older children, but Deeba told the Post-Dispatch the 1-year-old boy was the only child from that family who attended the day care facility. The mother apparently arrived at the day care facility at the end of the day to pick up her son, not realizing she hadn't dropped him off.

"The first time we saw her and her child was at 4:55 p.m.," Deeba told the Post-Dispatch.

Deeba said that surveillance cameras are mounted inside and outside the building. He is certain of the 4:55 time because that is when the computers clocked the mother’s check-in, Deeba said.

Deeba also said the day care facility has emergency policies in place that were implemented. He didn't elaborate on what those policies are. He added, "Calling the parents when children don't arrive is not our policy due to too many fluctuating schedules."

Child heat deaths on the rise

The high temperature for St. Louis on Monday was 79 degrees at 2:19 p.m., according to the National Weather Service. While that temperature doesn’t seem extreme, the heat inside a car can rise rapidly.

The circumstances of the child’s Monday death aren’t clear. But at 80 degrees parked in the sun, the average temperature inside a car is 19 degrees higher than the outside air temperature after 10 minutes, according to Jan Null, adjunct professor of meteorology at San Jose State University. After another 10 minutes, it goes up 10 more degrees. After an hour it would be up 43 degrees, to 123 degrees.

This year in the United States, 37 children have died after being left in hot cars, according to Null, who keeps such statistics.

Null said last year there were 39 deaths of children left in cars that got too hot; 37 is about average for an entire year. The highest since records have been kept was in 2010 with 49 deaths.

Null said the deaths started rising in the mid-1990s. Null said one factor for the increase is that children were moved into the back seats away from the airbags and often in rear-facing car seats.

Other factors may be parents distracted by cellphones and busier schedules.

He said 17 percent of the children died after a parent left the child purposely in the car while they did things such as run errands, go to a casino or go to work.

The St. Louis area has seen several heatstroke deaths of children left in vehicles in recent years. Two of the cases show the extremes in how authorities viewed the parent’s responsibility.

In 2007, a pediatrician and her husband had started a new morning routine the day they left their 7-month-old baby girl in a hot car. The mother apparently thought her husband knew to take the baby to the day care center on the medical school’s campus. The father told police he didn’t see the baby in the back seat.

The temperature outside topped out at 95 degrees that day. Experts said the car’s interior could have reached 140. The St. Louis circuit attorney’s office never charged either parent with a crime.

In June 2013, the father of 23-month-old boy from O’Fallon, Ill., was charged with involuntary manslaughter and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child after the boy was found dead in a car.

The outside temperature was about 90 degrees. Authorities say the father had loaded the child into the car about two hours earlier, then returned inside the home and passed out drunk. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison.

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