Baby left in minivan dies

Mother is professor at Cincinnati Christian University
By Jane Prendergast and Quan Truong • jprendergast@enquirer.com and qtruong@enquirer.com • August 21, 2008

EAST PRICE HILL - Students and faculty are gathering for a prayer meeting this morning at Cincinnati Christian University to try to understand an 11-month-old girl's death.

Jenna Edwards was found dead Wednesday in the back of her mother's minivan on the campus, where the mother is a counseling professor.

Cincinnati police said the mother, Jodie K. Edwards, left the child in her car seat in the rear of the dark gray Honda Odyssey when she reported to work at about 8:30 a.m. Jenna was discovered by her mother when she left work at about 4:30 p.m.

Edwards called 911. When police arrived, they found the little girl dead in the car seat.

In the hours the child was in the car, temperatures in Cincinnati rose from 69 degrees to a high of 90 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. The Hamilton County coroner's office is performing an autopsy this morning.

If the girl's death is attributed to hyperthermia from being inside the hot vehicle, it would be the first such death in Ohio this year. The last in the state was almost a year ago - the death of Cecilia Slaby, a 2-year-old from Union Township left in her mother's SUV for nearly eight hours last Aug. 23 while the mother, Brenda Nesselroad-Slaby, went to work inside Glen Este Middle School.

More than 300 people, mostly students, packed the Ministry Building for a prayer service this morning. Some had to sit on the floor and in the balcony for the service, which featured piano music and a singer .

"This is an unspeakable tragedy and no words can express our grief, sorrow, and care for the Edwards family," CCU President David Faust said Wednesday night. "The Bible says to weep with those who also weep, so we are supporting them with our tears and prayer."

He called Edwards, a second-year professor who mostly teaches graduate students, "a wonderful person, model professor and mom. This is a very, very caring place and she's the kind of person who exemplified that. But bad things happen."

He asked that judgment about Edwards be withheld so the community can focus on prayer.

"She is a person who deserves our support and understanding through this terrible situation," he said.

Larry Travis, the university's vice president of leadership development, said this morning that he didn't know what Edwards' schedule was Wednesday or if it was different than her usual routine.

"It's a tough time for sure," he said. "Every parent's worst nightmare."

Faust said an e-mail had been sent to students informing them of what happened. Faculty members went to students during dinner and spoke to each individually as news began to spread.

"People seem to be handling it pretty well, despite the gravity of the situation," Faust said.

Faculty returned to campus last Friday. Although classes for the fall semester don't start until next week, about half of the 1,100 students are on campus this week, Faust said. Most are undergraduate students who live in the dormitories and wouldn't know Edwards, because she teaches graduate students, he said.

As investigators finished their work at the scene, a quiet fell over the campus. Many students jogged by during their workouts and some played football, seemingly unaware of the grief that was starting to grip the school.

Others on their cell phones could be heard talking about their shock over the incident as news quickly made its way around.

Faust, who has been president of CCU for six years, said his statement was one he never thought he'd have to make.

"We have an outstanding counseling department," he said. He expects the incident to raise a lot of difficult questions, but said faculty will do their best to make sense of it. At this point, the focus is on the school's biggest message - faith and prayer.

About 30 to 40 students and faculty members had been through CCU's chapel by early evening, Faust said. Handfuls drifted through at a time, at one point eight to 10 gathering for an impromptu prayer service.

"Just because you believe in God doesn't mean you don't have terrible things happen to you," Faust said.

News of the baby's death prompted comparisons to Cecilia Slaby's death last year and questions about whether Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters might come to a different conclusion than Clermont County Prosecutor Don White did in the Slaby case. No charges were filed against Nesselroad-Slaby, who said she forgot the child was in her car.

Deters was at home cooking dinner when he heard about the incident from one of his assistants.

"Obviously, it's a tragic issue," he said. "We have to look at the facts and decide from there. I have no idea what the facts are yet."

The Odyssey was towed from the parking lot shortly before 7 p.m. Investigators removed the car seat from the back of the minivan. Investigators said the baby's parents were being taken downtown to the Criminal Investigations Section to be interviewed.

Edwards is an assistant professor of counseling. She earned her bachelor of science degree from Purdue University, a master's from Cincinnati Christian and her doctorate from Purdue. The dissertation she did there in 2007 was titled "Relationship satisfaction: The role of attachment, conflict, empathy & forgiveness." Among its findings was that people more secure in relationships are likely to be more empathetic and forgiving of their partners.

She won a fellowship at Purdue for 2007 for Ph.D. candidates in their final year of completing their dissertations. Chosen by graduate faculty members, winners had to demonstrate "superior academic abilities."

Edwards and her husband, Chris, also have a son, Eli Christopher, born in May 2005, according to an alumni newsletter. Chris Edwards is manager of the Center for Academic Technology and Educational Resources in the College of Nursing at the University of Cincinnati, said a UC spokesman.