Thursday, 07/10/03

Mother could be charged in toddler's van death

Boy left outside local day care in 90-degree heat

Charges are possible against a mother whose toddler died yesterday after she left him in her van outside a day-care center on a July afternoon that shot up to 90 degrees, police said.

The 22-month-old boy left outside the east Nashville day-care center had burns on his face and other signs of severe heat exposure, Metro police said last night.

David Gordon was discovered strapped inside a car seat about 4 p.m. by a parent who went to pick up another child at Small Wonders Child Care Center, 300 W. Trinity Lane.

The man became concerned when he saw that the motor wasn't running and went inside to alert the staff, police spokesman Don Aaron said.

The child's mother, Zenobia Newell Gordon, co-owner of the center, was inside. The boy was strapped in her van, a maroon Pontiac Montana, in a car seat behind the driver's seat, Aaron said. Police said after she was interviewed last night that she had left him there.

The mother rushed outside when the child was discovered, and 911 was called. But it was too late. The toddler was pronounced dead at Skyline Medical Center, Aaron said.

On an 85-degree day, the temperature inside a car can reach 120 degrees in as little as 10 minutes even with the windows open, safety officials say. On hotter days, it can go even higher.

People can quickly experience heat exhaustion when temperatures hit 90 degrees, and heat stroke can occur when temperatures hit 105 degrees, health experts say.

Police said last night that detectives believe the boy was in the van all day. The mother arrived at the center in the van about 9 a.m., having driven David, her two daughters, ages 4 and 7, and her niece there, police said. The mother, the niece and the daughters all went inside the day-care office and no one brought David inside, police said. After a few minutes, police said, the woman, her niece and her daughters boarded a day-care van not the vehicle the boy was left in and drove to another child-care center run by the family before going on a circus field trip.

A group of children at the center went to the UniverSoul Circus at Ted Rhodes Park in MetroCenter, Aaron said. Newell Gordon and the others joined them and had returned when the child was discovered. The woman told detectives she had thought the boy was in the day-care center all day, police said.

Charges against the mother ''are certainly possible,'' Aaron said, but police were not going to place any last night. It's likely that the case will be turned over to the Davidson County District Attorney's Office and then presented to a grand jury for a possible indictment. An autopsy will be performed today.

''The family is obviously very, very upset,'' Aaron said. ''We have no inclination this was an intentional act.''

Accidental or not, some parents vowed to never bring their children to the center again.

''My kids ain't coming back here,'' said William ''Tojo'' Judkins. ''There ain't no way.''

Judkins was on his way to pick up his two boys when he saw that something had happened at the center.

''I just came over the hill and seen the crime scene tape, and it scared me to death,'' he said.

Alicia Hagerman said that she was scheduled to begin sending her kids to the center next week but that the death had changed her mind. ''I said, nope, not no more.''

Dante Brent said that he was going to discuss the center with his wife but that workers there had always been good to his granddaughter, 20-month-old Lauren Brent.

He also remembered David Gordon fondly.

''He was just a beautiful little boy,'' Brent said. ''He had the prettiest smile.''

The Department of Human Services, which regulates day-care licenses, is conducting its own investigation, said DHS communications director Michelle Mowery Johnson.

The center will stay open, but all transportation has been suspended. Parents who rely on the day care's transportation will have to find other ways to get back and forth, Johnson said.

Small Wonders was a three-star center, the highest rating a day care is given by the state, she said.