Hills­bor­ough of­fi­cials boost pre­ven­tion ef­forts af­ter “heart­break­ing” year.

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - BY CHRISTO­PHER O’DON­NELL Times Staff Writer

TAMPA — The call to Dionne Sa­muel from her mother was short and fran­tic: Daniel is get­ting CPR. You need to come.

Des­per­ate for more in­for­ma­tion about her 3-year-old son, Sa­muel called ev­ery­one she knew as she bat­tled traf­fic.

Her brother redi­rected her to a nearby hos­pi­tal on Fletcher Av­enue but the se­cu­rity guard would not let her in the emer­gency room where her son lay. Sa­muel is a li­censed prac­ti­cal nurse. She knew what that meant and broke down cry­ing be­fore doc­tors con­firmed the worst.

“I knew his body was in there, but he’s not there,” she said.

She later learned that lit­tle Daniel had bolted from the car af­ter his grand­mother drove him home from day­care.

Half an hour later, he was found float­ing face-down in a neigh­bor’s pool. He was her only child.

“It was just a short win­dow,” Sa­muel said. “If he would have did some­thing dif­fer­ent, he prob­a­bly would still be here.”

Ev­ery year, Florida’s trea­sure of coast­lines, rivers, nat­u­ral springs and back­yard swim­ming pools prove lethal to chil­dren. Nowhere was that more true than in Hills­bor­ough County last year, where the num­ber of drown­ings spiked to 11, the high­est in the state and more than the pre­vi­ous two years com­bined.

An­other six chil­dren drowned in Pasco County — two more than in 2017 — and one in Pinel­las County. Statewide, the num­ber of child drown­ing deaths was 88, up 7 per­cent from 2017, ac­cord­ing to Florida De­part­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies data.

Of­ten, the mar­gin be­tween mishap and tragedy was heart­break­ingly small.

Jazmine Neal,3, slipped out of her Lutz home when her older sib­ling let the dog out. She was found float­ing in the fam­ily pool. Four-year-old Alexan­der Diaz was dis­cov­ered at the bot­tom of an 8-foot-deep pool less than two weeks af­ter they moved into a New Tampa home. He had never lived near a pool or had swim les­sons, ac­cord­ing to med­i­cal ex­am­iner records.

The youngest Hills­bor­ough vic­tim, Daleah Mor­gan, slipped out of her Bran­don home along with a 2-year-old sib­ling, pos­si­bly through a 3-foot tear in a porch screen.She drowned in a re­ten­tion pond just 12 days from her first birth­day.

For Hills­bor­ough agen­cies that spend hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars an­nu­ally on child swim­ming and adult ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams, 2018 was tough. Along with deaths from un­safe sleep­ing, drown­ings are con­sid­ered pre­ventable deaths. Ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams drill into par­ents the dan­gers of leav­ing young chil­dren unat­tended, the im­por­tance of swim les­sons, and the need for door alarms and bar­ri­ers around home pools.

“We re­ally do try to reach our com­mu­nity where they work, live and play,” said Paula Scott, di­rec­tor of pub­lic re­la­tions for the Hills­bor­ough County Chil­dren’s Board. “It’s a huge ef­fort for us and ev­ery time a child in our area dies from an ac­ci­den­tal drown­ing, I would be ly­ing if I said I didn’t take it per­son­ally and won­der what more I could have done.”

Even be­fore the year was out, the Chil­dren’s Board was mak­ing plans to step up pre­ven­tion ef­forts. This year, it will spend an ex­tra $140,000 on a mo­bile swim pro­gram that brings swim in­struc­tors to low-in­come apart­ment com­plexes with com­mu­ni­ties pools. It will also make up to $100,000 in grants avail­able for sim­ple main­te­nance fixes like pumps and fil­ters that pre­vented swim­ming les­sons from be­ing of­fered in some in­com­er­e­stricted apart­ment com­plexes.

“We’ve re­ally looked at this data to see what needs were a bar­rier to get­ting swim les­sons,” said Kel­ley Par­ris, the Chil­dren’s Board ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

The need to bring swim pro­grams into low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties was em­pha­sized by a 2017 USA Swim­ming Foun­da­tion study. It found that 79 per­cent of chil­dren in house­holds with in­comes be­low $50,000 have no or lit­tle swim­ming abil­ity.

The ad­di­tional money should more than dou­ble the num­ber of chil­dren who get les­sons from the 646 kids the pro­gram served in 23 lo­ca­tions last year, said Amanda Walker, aquat­ics ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for the Tampa Metropoli­tan Area YMCA, which runs the pro­gram. There will also be more one-on-one in­struc­tion for spe­cial-needs chil­dren.

Res­i­den­tial pools are usu­ally the big­gest risk for chil­dren. It’s es­ti­mated there are more than 77,000 in Hills­bor­ough, said Char­lene Cobb, a reg­is­tered para­medic who is chair of the Pinel­las Safe Kids Coali­tion and also works on the Pre­vent Need­less Deaths cam­paign.

But drown­ings hap­pen in ponds and bath­tubs. Chil­dren can drown in just an inch of wa­ter in a bucket.

“Peo­ple think they’re good par­ents and it’s not go­ing to hap­pen to them,” Cobb said. “Even the best par­ents when they get home from work and are cook­ing din­ner and it’s all of a sud­den: ‘Where did the baby go?’ ”

The grim task of an­a­lyz­ing many of the drown­ings falls to the county’s Child Abuse and Death Re­view Com­mit­tee, a state-man­dated group that in­cludes rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the sher­iff ’s of­fice, the Healthy Start Coali­tion and the Florida De­part­ment of Health, among oth­ers.

Last week, the com­mit­tee agreed to work on new rec­om­men­da­tions for pre­ven­tion mea­sures. One area of con­cern: reach­ing part-time child min­ders like grand­par­ents, other rel­a­tives and fam­ily friends. About half of the 2018 deaths in Hills­bor­ough oc­curred when the child was in the care of a rel­a­tive or friend.

“We don’t al­ways have ac­cess to the grand­par­ents or other care­givers,” said com­mit­tee co-chair­woman Jane Mur­phy, who is also ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Healthy Start. “A lot of the time, these kids are with a grand­mother or un­cle. Some­one has to be re­ally vig­i­lant about watch­ing them.”

Eleven months af­ter Daniel’s death in Fe­bru­ary, the emo­tion is still raw when Dionne Sa­muel talks about the loss of her son.

In the weeks that fol­lowed his death, she strug­gled to keep her life to­gether. She blamed her­self for not be­ing there and ques­tioned whether he died be­cause she didn’t de­serve such a good child. She dropped out of her classes to be­come a reg­is­tered nurse and her re­la­tion­ship with her mother was strained.

Worst of all was no longer be­ing Daniel’s mom.

She misses the way he would run to the door for a hug and kiss when she came home, how he would name ev­ery color of ev­ery item of cloth­ing when she was get­ting him dressed.

“You lose your role,” she said. “You don’t get to get up and make break­fast. It’s hard tran­si­tion­ing from be­ing some­one do­ing ev­ery­thing to do­ing noth­ing.”

For months after­ward, she felt like a spec­ta­tor in her own life, there phys­i­cally but not con­nected or “in tune.” In Au­gust, Sa­muel re­sumed her nurs­ing stud­ies but even her job is some­times a re­minder of the “sweet” young boy whose day­care teacher said was the only child who knew all his class­mates’ names. She wants par­ents to know they need to get their chil­dren swim­ming les­sons even if they don’t have a pool.

“To have to go in and take care of other chil­dren when you weren’t there for your own child, that’s very hurt­ful,” she said. “I didn’t get to do CPR or any­thing, or check for a pulse. It was too late.”

Just four days into 2019, Florida recorded its first child drown­ing of the new year.

Kay­den Bond slipped away from a sleep­ing great-grand­par­ent at a Braden­ton home and got out of the house through the slid­ing doors. The 3-year-old boy was found at the bot­tom of the pool.

Ph­tos by BRONTE WITTPENN | Times

Six-month-old Saman­tha Huff­man plays with toys at Seal Swim School in Lutz on Thurs­day as her mother, Al­li­son, lis­tens to in­struc­tor Ju­lia Far­rar dur­ing a class on how to pre­vent drown­ing.

Emily Plas sup­ports her 9-month-old son, Cash, as he climbs out of the pool dur­ing a Seal Swim School class Thurs­day. Last year, 11 chil­dren drowned in Hills­bor­ough, more than the pre­vi­ous two years com­bined.

Pho­tos by BRONTE WITTPENN | Times

From left, par­ents Bryan Huff­man, Ash­ley Fulling­ton and Jazmine Digiulio hold their chil­dren, Saman­tha, Whit­ney and Olivia, dur­ing a class to pre­vent drown­ing at Seal Swim School in Lutz on Thurs­day. Last year, 11 chil­dren drowned in Hills­bor­ough, six in Pasco and one in Pinel­las. Statewide, the to­tal was 88.

Whit­ney Fulling­ton looks at her mother Ash­ley as she climbs out of the pool at Seal Swim School. Hills­bor­ough agen­cies are mak­ing a big ef­fort this year to ed­u­cate par­ents on child safety.

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