From ShreveportTimes.com, By Loresha J. Wilson:
Eighty-eight Louisina children died as a result of unintentional drownings from 2007-2009, the most recent statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show. / Jim Hudelson/The Times
Angel Smith was the younger twin, born three minutes after big sister Aubrie. The girls were jolly, always laughing and playing.
“Just typical 3-year-olds doing what children do — and they loved each other,” said Pam Castine, the girls’ grandmother.
That image of Angel and Aubrie was shattered June 24 when Castine discovered her granddaughters floating in a neighbor’s pool near a south Bossier City playground.
The girls, who were with their mother and a friend, had wandered away and somehow slipped into a backyard, which was adjacent to the play area. Their mother, who was searching for her daughters, called Castine, who minutes later found the girls in the half-filled pool’s stagnant, green water.
Angel was dead. Aubrie was clinging to life — she remains in critical condition at Willis-Knighton South Medical Center. “Now we have one in heaven, and we are fighting for the other to stay with us,” a tearful Castine said Friday.
Angel and Aubrie are among four local children involved in a spate of recent drownings and near-drownings in the Shreveport-Bossier City area.
Elizabeth Bomar, 13 months, drowned June 20 in a backyard pool at her family’s north Bossier City home. On June 2, Shelby Patrick, 9, was found in the deep end of a Shreveport country club pool. She is in a Dallas rehabilitation facility.
Eighty-eight Louisiana children died as a result of unintentional drownings from 2007-09, the most recent statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.
Statewide, 267 Louisiana residents — children and adults — have drowned over the same time period. As a result, Louisiana ranked No. 4 nationwide in unintentional drownings in 2009, according to the CDC data.
In the aftermath of those deaths and nearly two years after the loss of six teens who drowned in Red River, the community appears still to be struggling to address issues related to unintentional drownings.
Free swim lessons offered in Shreveport are full, and no more are scheduled although more than 100 children are on waiting lists. Bossier City doesn’t plan to offer free swim lessons. While spokesmen for each city said water safety education programs are offered at city-owned pools, neither indicated if a broader community awareness campaign was planned.
Unlike school districts in Hawaii, Wisconsin, Ohio and other states, Caddo and Bossier schools do not offer swim lessons to students. Louisiana Department of Child and Family Services spokesman Trey Williams said the agency plans a joint news release with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals about drowning awareness, but Williams didn’t say if public education efforts would go beyond that. DCFS investigated 10 child drownings — mostly involving pools or bathtubs — in 2011, finding abuse or neglect in four of those cases. So far this year, the agency is reviewing four child drownings. Those investigations are not complete. As well, it’s not apparent if private groups or organizations have plans to address water safety or drowning.
Those facts dismay advocates who say keeping children safe isn’t solely the duty of parents — the community also should share the obligation.
“This isn’t simply a city or school thing, but a community responsibility,” said state Rep. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport, who led an effort in 2010 to determine who would be responsible for posting warning signs at the site where six teens drowned. “These are all of our children.”
Dr. Martha Whyte, DHH regional medical director, says awareness is key. Although water can be fun, people must also remain cognisant of its dangers, Whyte says.
“We’re all wary of people we don’t know because stranger danger is so ingrained in us, however many of us don’t give the same amount of precautions when it comes to a pool or water safety,” Whyte said.
Since 2011, more than a 1,000 children have received free swim lessons through a Shreveport program — Project Swim — funded by the Community Foundation, according to the group’s website. The 450 free swim lesson slots available this year were filled within the first 24 hours when registration opened.
However, Shreveport has identified a funding source that would meet program needs for this year and next. Once the funding is obtained, children on the waiting list would be offered lessons, says Shreveport spokesman Rod Richardson, who didn’t identify the source or an anticipated timeline in an email response to The Times.
Water safety is emphasized — with demonstrations and life jacket giveaways — at the start of every pool season with open houses at each of Shreveport’s five pools, Richardson says.
Bossier City also conducts awareness programs at its public pools, but the Parks & Recreation Department budget can’t accommodate free swim lessons, spokesman Mark Natale says.
Additionally, Shreveport, along with other sponsors such as the Red River Waterway Commission, will participate in water safety education efforts and offering free life jackets to residents attending this week’s Fourth of July celebration.
Victor Mainiero, director of communications and marketing for Caddo schools, said the district would consider offering swim lessons if proper facilities and financing could be secured.
“We’re open to any partnerships that would enhance what we can offer students, and if the opportunity presented itself, we’d be open to discussing it,” Mainiero said. Education needed Nadina Riggsbee, founder of Drowning Prevention Foundation in Benecia, Calif., says community groups, government agencies and others should pool resources to ensure children get swim lessons. Furthermore, education about drowning and water dangers should happen year-round. Children, even those as young as 6 months, should be taught survival skills, such as flipping themselves on their backs if they fall into a pool or other body of water, Riggsbee says. “Kids are like little Houdinis, who need to be protected from themselves,” said Riggsbee, whose 2-year-old daughter, Samira, drowned in 1978 while in the care of a baby sitter. Riggsbee’s son, JJ, now 35, nearly drowned alongside his sister and suffered severe disabilities.
Efforts like those Riggsbee describes could have made all the difference for children like Bryce Stewart. The 7-year-old, who loved football and fishing, drowned along with his grandfather Edward Stewart, 61, on Mother’s Day 2009. In the years since her father and son died, Christy Stewart has worked to regain her life — she started the My Paw-Paw and Me Foundation, which emphasizes child water safety. She also attended counseling and, despite a fear of water, eventually learned to swim through programs at Christus Schumpert. But after viewing media coverage of recent drownings, Stewart said many emotions have come to the surface, and she has started to see a grief counselor again.
“You never want anyone to have to go through what you went through and to see these children dying one after another has been really hard to see,” said Stewart, who moved from Dallas to Shreveport about a year ago. “This shows we still have more work to do and a long way to go.”