EDUCATION & SCHOOLS

Family speaks out after boy with special needs left in school van

May 15, 2024, 11:50 PM | Updated: May 16, 2024, 1:50 pm

EAGLE MOUNTAIN —  A family is speaking publicly after saying their little boy was forgotten and left alone inside a school transportation van, as they frantically tried to find him.

The driver of that van has now been criminally charged in the ordeal, but the family is questioning how this was allowed to happen and wondering what steps have been taken to prevent it in the future.

The van belonged to Wasatch Transportation, which the Elizabeth DeLong School said runs their transportation services. The boy’s mother and grandmother say the timelines they were given do not match up, leaving them feeling like they don’t have any answers.

Playing in the front yard Wednesday evening, mom Hillarie Siliga talked to her 4-year-old son. He ran around with a toy foam dart gun, laughing as he and his brother aimed at each other.

Siliga explained that her son is deaf in one ear. She doesn’t want that to be limiting and said she wants him to “thrive like other kids do normally.”

Part of that, she said, is attending Elizabeth DeLong School, which is the Springville campus for the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind.

Earlier this month on May 2, Siliga described how she became worried when her son wasn’t dropped off at the time he was supposed to arrive home.

“I got a text message that said that he was here, and I never saw the van. But again, that wasn’t abnormal,” she said.

The reason it wasn’t out of the ordinary, Siliga further explained, was because she was already having issues with communication from the driver from Wasatch Transportation.

She said she had complained to the company on multiple occasions in less than a two-week time span and that they told her they had talked to the driver.

But in this case, more than an hour passed from when her son was supposed to arrive, Siliga said. In fact, she said he would have left the school two and a half hours prior and still, no sign of him.

She said she called Wasatch Transportation.

“‘Hey, do you know where my son is? Can you help me find my son?'” she recounted. “And they didn’t know what was going on, either. So the panic started to set in.”

Siliga said school gets out at 1:30 p.m.. By then, it was 4 p.m.

“A really horrible part of the whole thing is just sitting here and wondering where he could be,” she said.

Siliga’s mother, Gretchen Lowe, immediately jumped in to help, and it wasn’t long before they heard that the boy had been located.

Two women stand shoulder to shoulder

Hillarie Siliga, left, and Gretchen Lowe said a 4-year-old child was forgotten and left alone inside a school transportation van. The mother and grandmother are concerned about safety after the incident and spoke to KSL TV on May 15, 2024. (Lauren Steinbrecher, KSL TV)

It turns out the van was parked at the driver’s residence and, according to court documents, had been there for about 45 minutes before Siliga’s son was discovered using GPS tracking for the van.

“I don’t think they got in touch with the driver,” Lowe said. “What I was told is that the driver had gotten out of her car and went to the bank. And so I don’t believe she was there at all.”

Court documents state that at 4:15 p.m., the boy was found still belted in the van.

Siliga said her son told her he was crying and was stuck in his car seat. She said he finally made it home at 5 p.m.

“He told me that day that he had been in the van for a long time and that he missed his mommy. Broke my heart,” she said.

But, a spokesperson for the Elizabeth DeLong School provided KSL TV with a different timeline from Wasatch Transportation, than what’s in court documents.

According to the charging document, the van left the school at 1:30 p.m., and states that “The other children were home by 2:30-2:45 p.m. The van was parked at the defendant’s residence at 3:34 p.m.” Documents go on to say the child’s mother called the company at 4 p.m., and the child was found at 4:15 p.m.

The school explained that Wasatch Transportation gave them a much shorter window.

“Wasatch Transportation reported to the school that the driver forgot to drop off the student at the home. Fortunately, the child was left in the van for less than five minutes before the child was retrieved,” Susan Thomas, director of communications and development, wrote in an email.

“There’s no way he was in the car for five minutes,” Lowe said. “If he had been in a car for five minutes, where was he for the other three and a half hours?”

Even though the driver, Patricia Kitchen, was charged with felony neglect of a child with a disability, the mother and grandmother said the company never explained if something slipped through the cracks with their protocols or assured them on how Wasatch Transportation is addressing this to prevent it in the future.

white vans behind a fence

Wasatch Transportation vans on May 15, 2024. (Lauren Steinbrecher, KSL TV)

“Did she even follow protocol at all? We don’t know,” Lowe said.

“We have no answers,” Siliga said. “We haven’t heard a lot of these answers.”

KSL TV contacted Wasatch Transportation and was given a number for the company’s owner. A call to the owner with a voicemail followed by a text was not returned on Wednesday.

Thomas wrote in her email that Wasatch Transportation “reported they took swift action with the employee so this will not happen again.”

Lowe and Siliga expressed frustration, stating that Siliga had complained about the driver prior to the incident and felt her concerns weren’t heard. Now, they’re wondering if any other parents complained.

“It seemed over and over and over that it wasn’t being taken very seriously and it only would have been a huge issue had he died,” Lowe said. “That seems like that’s when people would have listened.”

They’re glad the 4-year old is OK, but both said the situation was traumatic, left them shocked, and wondering how to move forward.

“Another big thing for me is to make sure that this never happens again to any other person,” Siliga said. “And especially a small child that can’t defend themselves.”

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Family speaks out after boy with special needs left in school van