In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Florida kid drownings almost an epidemic but nobody seems to care

Jonathan Feliciano died in what ought to be considered an epidemic in Florida. He drowned.

More accurately, 3-year-old Jonathan was allowed to drown, slipping into a swimming pool unnoticed by his caretaker.

It’s a category of child mortality that occurs so often in Florida, you’d think that parents and civic leaders would regard backyard swimming pools with the same urgency they harbor for, say, sex offenders. Registered sex offenders have killed 14 kids in Florida since 1999. Some 30 to 40 kids drown Florida each year.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that drowning is the leading cause for the deaths of children 4 years old and younger in the U.S. And Florida has the ignominious distinction of leading the nation in child drownings. In South Florida, six small children have perished in backyard pools over the last two months.

Child drownings, you’d think, would be a major concern for a state agency charged with the health and safety of kids. The death of Jonathan Feliciano indicates otherwise.

Jonathan died Dec. 22 at a licensed daycare in western Miami-Dade County that had been inspected twice last year by the Department of Children and Families. Given the child-drowning death toll in Florida, a swimming pool anywhere in the vicinity of a toddler daycare ought to send DCF into a frenzy. But DCF inspectors overlooked two crucial problems with the above-ground swimming pool behind Mayling Brache Family Day Care.

According to Miami-Dade police, the inspectors failed to notice that the pool had permanent steps, despite DCF regulations requiring “any ladder or steps that are the means of access to an above-ground pool must be removed at all times while children are in care and when the pool is not being used by the children in care.”

DCF inspectors ordered the daycare operator to secure the gate to the the pool with a padlock. But Detective Jonathan Grossman noticed that the pool gate was not only a foot shorter than DCF’s requirements, but constructed with just three wooden slats, leaving gaps between six and seven inches wide, large enough for a toddler to squeeze through. It was a fatal flaw.

After police discovered a surveillance video showing 23 minutes passed before anyone discovered that the unsupervised child had climbed into the pool, daycare worker Zobeida Gonzalez, 63, was charged with aggravated manslaughter and child neglect.

But DCF ducked its own culpability. When my colleague David Ovalle inquired about agency failures to enforce pool safety regulations, a DCF spokesperson responded with a bureaucratic dodge: because the daycare wasn’t licensed to operate on weekends, it’s not our problem. “It is important to note that while this was a tragedy that occurred at a home licensed for family day care, the incident occurred after normal hours of operation and involved a child not enrolled in care.”

In a state with a child drowning epidemic, an agency charged with protecting children overlooked dangerous violations of swimming pool safety at a state licensed child daycare facility.

Apparently it was DCF’s good luck that this particular drowning occurred on the weekend.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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