HENDRICKS COUNTY — A Hendricks County couple is sharing their story for the first time after their toddler died in a hot vehicle.
Elizabeth and Austin Crapo’s 20-month-old daughter, Marah, died on August 25, 2019, at their home in the 8000 block of North County Road 650 East near Brownsburg.
“None of us expect it, and all of a sudden, you are part of this club that no one wants to be a part of,” Elizabeth Crapo said.
The Crapos sat down with WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney in an effort to raise awareness about safety and managing grief.
“With Marah, she was the highlight of our home,” Elizabeth Crapo said. “She was content to just sit in your lap and enjoy you. She would just look into your eyes and observe, laugh and smile.”
Hot car deaths are more common than you might think.
On average, 38 children die a year in hot cars across the country, or one every 9 days, according to the advocacy group Kids and Car Safety
In most cases, a loving and attentive parent or caregiver unknowingly leaves a child in the vehicle, according to Kids and Car Safety.
That’s what happened to Elizabeth and Austin Crapo.
On August 25, 2019, Elizabeth Crapo had a lot on her mind, including how to spend more time with her five children.
“At the time I was really struggling with how to be more present with them,” Elizabeth Crapo said.
The Crapo family got home from church and ate lunch.
“We decided to take a nap, we were just exhausted at the end of the week,” Elizabeth Crapo said. “We took a several-hour nap."
Austin woke up suddenly and asked if their eldest daughter Eden had put Marah down for her nap.
“I said ‘I'm not sure’ and he ran to go see Marah in her crib but at that point, Eden knew what we were discussing and so he was on her heels and I was on his,” Elizabeth Crapo said.
They found Marah inside their van. She had been inside the vehicle for hours while the outside temperature was around 80 degrees.
“Austin took her from Eden and he said ‘Babe, she's not breathing,’” Elizabeth Crapo said. “So, I grabbed her from him and took her to the ground and took her to the grass and started doing CPR."
They called 911 and first responders arrived at their home.
“They took her to the ambulance, and I assumed that meant we were going to a hospital,” Elizabeth Crapo said. “I ran in to get my keys and my shoes and as I ran out Austin said ‘She's already passed’."
Detectives questioned Elizabeth and Austin separately.
Marah’s death was ruled an accident and no criminal charges were filed.
But the incident did make headlines, and strangers’ Facebook comments and messages were brutal.
“Premeditated murder of a child,” wrote one Facebook user. “You can’t change my mind.”
“Whoever leaves a child in a car to die like that deserves the same death” wrote another Facebook user. “Put them in a hotbox with no way out, then leave them to die!”
“How do you forget checking on a toddler for 4 hours????” read another Facebook comment.
WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney asked the Crapos what their response is to those types of comments.
“I think we just need to give some grace and understand that each of us are going to have moments of stress or distractedness,” Elizabeth Crapo said. “It's not that you're forgetting them. It's that your mind is somewhere else."
“I failed as a protector, I failed my child,” Austin Crapo said. “I promise you nobody could make me feel worse. Not the state of Indiana, not any person who posts on social media is going to make me feel worse than I do.”
Experts who have studied hot car deaths say it can happen to even the most loving, attentive parents.
Have you ever left the coffee on the roof of your car and driven off? Have you ever driven to work even though you're off that day? Experts say it's the same type of thing.
Your brain goes on autopilot, and it's not that you forget your child, it's that your brain tricks you into believing they're where they're supposed to be.
Austin Crapo struggles with guilt, as he was usually the one to get Marah out of the car.
“I had gotten kids out of cars thousands of times before and never made that mistake,” Austin Crapo said. “Often times that's all a mistake is. One deviation. One thing happens."
WRTV Investigates asked the couple what they say to people who say they would never leave a child in a vehicle.
“We live in a world where none of us are perfect,” Elizabeth Crapo said. “Every parent has made mistakes. No matter what it looks like. Sadly, some of the mistakes result in tragedy.”
They’ve turned their grief into healing and helping others.
“She's watching and if I can still nurture her by putting a smile on her face that's something I can do for her still,” Elizabeth Crapo said. “I know she's somewhere smiling."
The Crapos do service projects, like delivering gift baskets to the first responders who came to their house in August 2019.
“If hearing about our story, our tragedy and accident helps to encourage people to be more vigilant, that's awesome,” Austin Crapo said. “If you can find joy and happiness in some way, we founded it in service. Serving others is a way to keep her alive. I hope that encourages someone to get outside of themselves."
The advocacy group Kids and Car Safety says raising awareness about hot car deaths is not enough, because most parents believe this can’t happen to them.
They’re pushing the federal government to require occupant detection in all vehicles, which actually senses motion in the car and can set off an alarm.
"The good news is there is technology that exists that can prevent this from happening,” Amber Rollins, director of Kids and Car Safety, said. “There are sensing systems out there that can detect the presence of a child and alert bystanders and even contact authorities and let them know there is a child alone in that vehicle and they're in danger."
In November 2021, Congress passed a law that requires an audio and visual reminder alert to check the back seat in new passenger vehicles.
Kids and Car Safety says, unfortunately, the provision does not require the system to detect a child alone in a vehicle.
The group says a reminder alert alone falls short and can even create a false sense of security for families.
Safety Tips for Parents and Caregivers from Kids and Car Safety
- Make sure your child is never left alone in a car
- Place the child’s diaper bag or item in the front passenger seat as a visual cue that the child is with you.
- Make it a habit of opening the back door every time you park to ensure no one is left behind.
- To enforce this habit, place an item that you can’t start your day without in the back seat (employee badge, laptop, phone, handbag, etc.)
- Ask your childcare provider to call you right away if your child hasn’t arrived as scheduled.
- Clearly announce and confirm who is getting each child out of the vehicle. Miscommunication can lead to thinking someone else removed the child.
- Make sure children cannot get into a parked car: Keep vehicles locked at all times, especially in the garage or driveway. Ask neighbors and visitors to do the same.
- Never leave car keys within reach of children.
- Use childproofing knob covers and door alarms to prevent children from exiting your home unnoticed. Teach children to honk the horn or turn on hazard lights if they become stuck inside a car.
- If a child is missing, immediately check the inside, floorboards, and trunk of all vehicles in the area carefully, even if they’re locked.