19-month-old dies while strapped in seat in school van

By Lauchlin Fields

[07/03/07]

ROLLING FORK - A toddler died here Monday after he was left in a van that ferried him and other children to a summer program offered by Mississippi Christian Family Services.

Although an autopsy on the body of 19-month-old Kaleb Johnson was planned for tonight, Sharkey County Coroner Ola Mae Holmes ruled the child died of exposure to extreme heat as the temperature climbed to 91 degrees in the Delta.

Kaleb, the son of Kenya Johnson and Robert Brady of Glen Allan, was found at about 3 p.m., and his body was first taken to Sharkey-Issaquena Community Hospital in Rolling Fork where about 50 people gathered, asked questions and mourned.

“We want to know why - why was he left on that bus?” asked Ivory Brady, Kaleb's grandmother.

At about 5 p.m., officers with the Sharkey and Issaquena county sheriff's departments and Rolling Fork police waited for officials at the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations, who will investigate the case. Delores Lewis, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, said no information was available this morning. No charges had been filed.

Outside the hospital, Kaleb's godmother, Annette Spand, held back tears as she pointed out Kaleb's pacifier on a string around her neck.
“I was in Vicksburg shopping for him when (his mother) called,” she said. “She said something was wrong, but she thought he was all right.”

According to family members, the day started out like any other. Kaleb's brother, 10-year-old Kenneth, watched as his little brother was strapped into his car seat on the van that would take him and other small children to the center.

“He was playing this morning,” Kenneth said.

Spand and others said while all the other children were unstrapped and removed from the bus that arrived at about 9, Kaleb was left inside.

According to family and friends, when an employee, who was not named, went back to load the children back into the van at the end of the day, Kaleb was found in his seat. There were indications the toddler had tried to free himself from the seat.

“He fought for his life and scratched himself,” Spand said. “He was a fighter.”

Emotions heightened as the crowd continued to wait. At about 6:30, Kaleb's mother exited the hospital and fell into the arms of others who had gathered.

Speculation as to why Kaleb was left in the bus after all the other children played safely inside the center loomed over the parking lot.

“How can you forget from 9 to 3?” asked family friend Monica Griffin, whose daughter had been in the van with Kaleb that morning.

Mississippi Christian Family Services is an early intervention program administered by the Mississippi Department of Mental Health. The program, which serves Issaquena and Sharkey counties, is designed for children with developmental disabilities and their families, according to the agency's Web site. Its purpose is to enhance the development of infants, toddlers and young children with disabilities or children who are at risk for developing disabilities.

Holmes did not know this morning whether funeral arrangements for Kaleb had been made and was unsure which funeral home would have charge. She said the town continues to grieve.

“It was the most horrific thing. It hurt me - it still hurts,” she said. “It's such a sad, sad thing.”