Everett Smith had a grin so infectious his daycare staff nicknamed him “Smiley.” He loved apples. His prized possession was a yellow toy school bus.
He was just three weeks shy of his second birthday when he died in late June 2022 in the back seat of a car in Bancroft, Ont., after a family emergency changed his family’s morning routine and his mom didn’t realize he hadn’t been dropped off at his daycare when she headed into work.
Now, new rules for Ontario child-care operators coming into effect next year are aimed at preventing the rare but horrific deaths of children in hot cars. As of Jan. 1, licensed home daycares and child-care centres will need to develop a policy setting out the steps they will take when a child doesn’t arrive as expected.
It’s a step Everett’s parents see as comforting, knowing that something positive will come out of such a devastating tragedy.
“How it happened absolutely is devastating, but change comes from situations like this,” Everett’s dad, Jason Smith, said in an interview.
“Will it save lives? Definitely.”
Safe arrival systems have long been in place in schools, where children are as young as three or four when starting junior kindergarten, but not in child-care settings, where children are younger and more vulnerable.
“I had never really thought about it until then,” said Everett’s mom, Diana Smith, who is a teacher.
“But then when people pointed it out … I was like, why do (daycares) not have the same system that we do?”
Researchers from the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children who studied incidents of children dying unattended in hot cars found that under certain circumstances, forgetting a child in the back seat of a car could happen to anyone.
The 2019 study found that six children had died in that way between 2013 and 2018 in Canada. In the U.S., an average of 37 children die each year due to being left in a hot car, the study noted.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the new rules are an obvious step to take if they have the potential of saving even one life.
“It could happen to good parents who love their children and care deeply about their welfare and so if there’s a step government could take, that reduces risk and that builds confidence that there’s always a safety mechanism in place or a guardrail against these very tragic, these very rare but very real tragedies, then it’s obvious the government needs to act,” he said in an interview.
“From the consultation, I will tell you that those operators (that didn’t already have a system in place) understood totally why they need it and there was widespread support for this.”
Jill Wickins, who works in operations for Compass Early Learning and Care, a large child-care organization in east-central Ontario, said it won’t be a big shift for their centres because they already check in with families.
“Absolutely I think it’s imperative that we have some kind of system to ensure that children are safe,” she said.
The Smiths set up a memorial fund in Everett’s name, in order to fund activities at his daycare, which their older child – now six years old – also attended.
“(When) people die, people always send money, flowers, all sorts of things,” Jason Smith said.
“We don’t want any of that. We don’t need any of that. He loved the daycare. We like the daycare. We support the daycare. Let’s do something to support other children.”
The fund has so far paid to give children at the daycare horse-drawn sleigh rides, play time with a bubble machine and a graduating party for what was Everett’s class.
“It’s to help promote smiles for other children,” Smith said.
© 2023 The Canadian Press