Loren, her husband and son are participants in my RIE parenting class, and have become my friends. They had a tragic experience with their beloved first son Chase. Loren courageously volunteered to share her story in the hope that it would help others, even though reliving these events has been extraordinarily difficult for her…
In her book, Dear Parent – Caring For Infant With Respect, Magda Gerber asserted that her greatest battle here in the United States was creating a physically safe space for infants and children. By ‘safe’, she meant an environment with age appropriate toys and furniture that would not harm a child in any way, so that if a child were left alone and unattended he could still play safely.
Several years ago, my husband and I became foster parents with the hope to adopt. As foster parents, we went through a very strict home study making sure that our home was completely safe for children. It seemed ridiculous at the time, but now I see the value. I was always surprised that our home, without a child, was more childproofed than my friends’ houses who already had their own children.
Our first boy came to us at fourteen days old, and due to circumstances out of our control, at eight and a half months we had to turn him over to his birth father. That boy, Chase, was to me my first son. We were lucky to be invited to stay involved in his life even after he lived with his father. We were named his God Parents. We went to visit him on holidays and his birthday. We watched him start crawling and walk while we were visiting.
In this birth family house nothing was childproofed. For some reason birth families are not expected to adhere to the same safety standards as foster parents. There were no gates, no locks on drawers, nothing of the kind. They had moved some plants and valuables out of the child’s reach, but that was about it. When I mentioned that I noticed that nothing was gated, were they concerned he might get hurt, they would just say, “Oh, he’s fine. He knows better. Nothing has ever happened.” I always thought: how can a nine month old know better? And, like Magda Gerber, I thought, “Nothing has ever happened yet.”
Well, he didn’t know better, and frankly why should he? A child’s safety is the responsibility of the parents.
When Chase was eighteen months old came the worst day of my life, with a call from his father: Chase had drowned. The family had had a party several days before. The sodas and beer were in coolers. Chase kept going in the cooler to get ice and chew on it. Everyone thought it was cute. The next two days the cooler was left in the kitchen. They thought it was out of his reach because it was on a table with the lid closed. But it wasn’t. The father, who worked nights so he could care for his child during the day, nodded off on the couch, just a few feet away. The child was left free to roam in an environment that was not childproofed or gated. He climbed on the chair, opened the cooler and reached in for ice – a behavior that had gotten positive attention just days before – and he fell in and drowned in just moments. Drowning like this is more likely to happen to toddlers because their heads tend to be heavy, and they don’t yet have the skills to know how to get out once they have fallen in.
When I told my friend, whose husband was a paramedic, she wasn’t surprised. She said it is very common that people leave out coolers of melted ice, buckets of water, and small swimming pools. It doesn’t take much water, even less than an inch and a young child can drown. The national average is 115 drownings per year. This includes toilets. When she and her husband tell people to empty their coolers, people look at them like they are silly. I had a similar experience with a friend and she said, “Oh, I know you’re sensitive because of what happened.” No, I’m not sensitive. I’m conscious of the fact that children die needlessly because of adult carelessness.
Our son is now two years old. He has two gated areas — a gate in front of the bathroom and a lock on the toilet seat. His play area is completely safe, so I can go to the bathroom, take a shower, do the laundry, cook in the kitchen, and he is free to move and safe to play. If I got locked out of my house, I’d only have to worry that he would have a dirty diaper or was hungry. This I learned at RIE.
Yes, we are the exception. Once, when we my father was visiting, he said, “Poor kid, they got you locked up in a prison.” I said to him, “Dad, that prison would have saved Chase’s life.” My mother thinks we are “worry warts” and should let him roam free. When she visits, she has let him roam free. She says she is watching him, but one day, when he was roaming free and she and I were in the kitchen making dinner, I turned around and he had a seven inch knife in his hand.
Does my son protest and want to be in the ‘free zone’, as we call it? Yes, often and very loudly. I acknowledge his feelings and tell him he needs to be in his safe area for right now. Within a few moments, he relaxes and finds something child appropriate and safe with which to play, and then we are both relaxed, safe and happy.
The tragedy of Chase’s death is that it was preventable. My experience speaking with other parents is that it is easy to focus on the fact that the father nodded off, and to ignore the fact that the father’s first fault was that the home was not safe for an 18 month old child. I know that even on my best moments and days I cannot watch my child every single second. So, for me, that gate and all the safety proofing is not only for my child’s safety, but also for my serenity — to be there to protect my child even on my most imperfect days as a parent.
This week is the two year anniversary of Chase’s death, and I think of him and miss him every day. Please take care of your children. Be mindful of empty coolers, buckets and swimming pools. Create safe places, learn CPR and get a good night’s sleep. 115 children drowning a year means 2 children die each week, and they don’t have to. We have the power to change this statistic.
Loren is a mom, acting coach and filmmaker in Los Angeles. www.LorenEChadima.com.