Father who left twins to die in hot car now an activist

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The pain is always there.

In the nearly 18 months since Juan Rodriguez’s twin babies, Luna and Phoenix, perished in the back seat of his car — strapped in and forgotten on a sweltering summer day while he worked — the Rockland County dad’s grief has remained raw.

“It’s a struggle everyday,” Rodriguez, 40, told The Post last week in his first public statements since the July 2019 tragedy.

To cope, the father of five and his wife, Marissa, have become advocates for an issue they say many people still don’t understand: kids dying in hot cars. Juan is now appearing in a documentary on the topic.

This year, 24 children died of heatstroke after being left in cars in the United States, according to data collected by the Department of Transportation. In 2019, 52 children died and a record 53 died in 2018.

On that fateful day in 2019, Rodriguez left his home in New City and drove to his job as a social worker. His adorable babies were snug in their car seats as he headed to the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in The Bronx, where he counsels disabled veterans. Believing he’d already dropped Luna and Phoenix at day care in Yonkers, Rodriguez didn’t realize what he’d done until eight hours later as he headed home — and looked in the rearview mirror.“ Oh, my God, oh, my God!” he wailed after pulling over. “I killed my babies!” The twins were foaming at the mouth. Their organs had failed and their body temperature had hit 108 degrees.

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The Post’s front page about Rodriguez from 2019.

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Juan Rodriguez is seen crying in Bronx Criminal Court

Tomas E. Gaston

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Juan Rodriguez and his family

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Juan Rodriguez and his family

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As a social worker, Rodriguez said he had no idea how common the problem is, calling it “a serious public health issue.”

“Now I am always conscious of it when I am treating others,” he said. “I can’t allow myself to get complacent.”

That’s why Rodriguez chose to appear in Susan Morgan Cooper’s upcoming documentary, “Fatal Distraction,” which takes a compassionate look at the grief faced by parents like Juan and Marissa Rodriguez, and how society treats them.

“We have all sorts of sensors and gadgets to prevent against lost keys, why not something to alert us to the fact that someone is still in the back seat?” said Morgan Cooper, whose documentary is set to premiere in the spring.

“These parents suffer so much shame, guilt and self-loathing,” the Los Angeles-based filmmaker said. “There is such a sense of judgment with the public. And it makes little sense. If your child dies from drowning in a pool, the whole society comes together and gives you support. In this case, there is only judgment, and they are treated like common criminals.”

Juan Rodriguez told The Post he is encouraged by the documentary, calling it “the very depiction of what’s happened to families” who are overworked and frazzled and forget their young children in a vehicle.

Although Rodriguez is briefly featured in the documentary, Morgan Cooper didn’t press him for a greater role because his grief was “simply too raw, too fresh” when she was concluding work on the film last summer.

“The punishment that Juan and his wife are giving themselves is far worse than any jail,” she said. “They are suffering a great deal.”

Although Rodriguez was initially charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, he eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor reckless endangerment and served no jail time.

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