More children drowned in Florida in 2021 than during any year on record, sending health authorities and parent advocates scrambling for new solutions to an old challenge in the Sunshine State.
Ninety-eight people 18 and under drowned during the year, the Florida Department of Children and Families reported — reversing a general trend of declining numbers that dates to the previous record of 92 deaths in 2010. Florida’s online records go back to 2009. The state did not respond to a request for numbers during previous years.
The year-over-year increase for 2021 was 42 percent. The state reported 69 child drowning deaths in 2020 and 65 in 2019.
Factoring in its status as the third-most-populous state, Florida ranks No. 4 nationwide in the rate of unintentional drownings among children ages 4 and under, as it has since 2017, according to the Florida Department of Health. The drowning rate for children 5-12 in Florida has also increased significantly during the past decade.
“It’s always swim season in Florida, so we always have to make sure that we never let our guard down,” said Casey McGovern, the former drowning prevention program manager for the Florida Department of Health in Broward County. McGovern recently left that position to start her own nonprofit advocacy group, called the McGovern Foundation, in memory of her 19-month old daughter Edna Mae, who drowned in the family’s backyard pool in August 2009.
As numbers continued to rise across the state, McGovern and other members of Florida’s Child Abuse Death Review Committee held a conference near the end of 2021 to identify trends and possible explanations behind the spike.
The reasons were many, the committee said.
Nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic, school closures forced more children to spend their days at home. Then came the summer months, when a brief lull in COVID-19 transmissions allowed for long-awaited pool parties and trips to Florida’s coastlines, rivers and natural springs.
Last year, counties across the state reported more child drownings occurring in hotels and vacation rental homes or gatherings like neighborhood pool parties, McGovern told the group.
Over the course of two weeks in July, eight children drowned in the Tampa Bay region, the Department of Children and Families said — four in Polk County and one each in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco counties.
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The deadly spate started with a 4-year-old boy in Polk County who was found in a relative’s pool and spent five days in intensive care before he died, state records show. The language of the case report — “found unresponsive in the swimming pool after he got out of the home undetected” — echoes the explanation behind the overwhelming majority of drownings reported in Florida last year.
The death of a 5-year-old boy in Lakeland during February reflects the many cases where fun turned tragic, according to a two-page state summary.
The boy’s aunt and uncle agreed to watch him and his 2-year-old sister for the day at their home in Lakeland while a neighbor was throwing a child’s birthday party. All four went to the party, joining a large group of adults and kids 5-11. It wasn’t until nearly 7 p.m., when the aunt went to put the 2-year-old girl down for a nap, that she heard screams for someone to call 911. The neighbor and her child found the boy floating in the pool.
Twenty-two of the 98 Florida child drownings during 2021 were in the seven counties of the Tampa Bay region, state records show. That compares with 16 of the 69 child drownings the year before, a local increase of 38 percent. The 2021 breakdown: eight deaths in Polk, five in Hernando, four in Pasco, three in Hillsborough, one each in Pinellas and Manatee and none in Citrus.
McGovern and other parent advocates hope a law passed by Florida legislators last year will help curb the rising numbers. The “Every Child A Swimmer” law requires Florida schools to ask parents of kindergartners whether their child knows how to swim, and if not, to provide them with materials about water safety education and local lessons.
“If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we found that in most cases their parent doesn’t swim either and that evokes a lot of fear and anxiety around water,” McGovern said. “This will help us communicate more directly to parents and help them feel confident knowing its never to late to learn how to keep themselves and their children safe around water.”
The new law didn’t give advocates the money they’ve been seeking to teach children in at-risk families how to swim. Until then, the challenge is being answered by nonprofits, child safety foundations and people like Paul Demello of Port Charlotte.
Jan. 16 will mark 12 years since the Demellos’ 13-month-old twin boys ended up in a backyard pool. When no one was looking, the boys broke through a baby gate, crawled onto their grandparents’ lanai and made their way to the pool. Joshua, the oldest, died at the scene while Christian clung to life for three days, Demello said.
“In an instant, my life changed in a way I never thought would happen to me,” Demello said. “Drowning isn’t like what you see on TV. It’s silent and it’s quick.”
In the midst of his grief, Demello and his wife created the Just Against Drowning Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to water safety awareness. The organization advocates for legislation to make swimming and water safety courses more accessible and supplies family homes with free pool fences — the kind of barrier that could have saved his boys’ lives.
“People should be worried every time they’re around water,” Demello said. “Two seconds in two inches of water is really all it takes.”
Keeping children safe:
Pool fencing: Pool owners can install fences with a lock and self-closing gate to keep children away from the pool when an adult is not present.
Door alarms: Installing door alarms can alert a parent or caregiver that an exterior door has been opened, especially if the door has access to any body of water like retention ponds, canals or even fountains.
Drain containers: Young children can drown in as little as one inch of water. Ensure bathtubs, mop buckets and inflatable pools are drained after each use.
Adult supervision: Always provide adult supervision for children in or around water. Children drown silently and in as little as 20 seconds. Designating a “water watcher” is a simple measure that ensures an adult is supervising children at all times when they are in or around water.
Swim lessons: Enrolling children in formal swimming lessons reduces their lifetime chances of drowning by 88 percent.
Learn CPR: A drowning victim has a significantly increased chance of a positive outcome if CPR is started immediately versus waiting for first responders to arrive.
Source: Children’s Board of Hillsborough County