One step behind
Volusia County has high rate of toddler drownings, and numbers may not tell the whole story
Kaleb Hanscom was almost 3.
“He was the most amazing child ever,” Kaleb’s mom, Tiffany Hanscom, said.
“He was 2 years old and could spell words for you, could sing his ABCs, could count to 30,” said Kaleb’s aunt Heather Coco. “He was so smart.”
“My son had a mind of his own,” Hanscom said.
On Labor Day, three months before his birthday, Kaleb drowned in a swimming pool in Deltona.
Family and friends were gathered at Coco’s home for a Labor Day party. The pool, in the backyard, was separated from the gathering by several locked doors on the house.
“Kaleb was being incredibly devious that day,” Coco recalled.
She and the adults at the party parked their cars in a straight line across the front of the house, blocking him from the road he kept trying to run into, to keep him safe.
As the party went on, the adults were standing in the garage, “talking about some nonsense,” Coco said, and the children were inside getting drinks. When Coco’s now-husband went inside to help Coco’s daughter with something, the two of them realized they didn’t know where Kaleb was. They started looking for him.
“I heard this like, blood-curdling scream, and it just stopped me in my tracks,” Hanscom said.
“I heard my daughter scream, and my sister took off running. Immediately after that, I heard my fiance scream,” Coco said.
She knew something was wrong with one of the kids. When Coco and Hanscom got to the backyard, Coco’s daughter was pulling herself out of the pool, and Coco’s fiance was already out with Kaleb. Both had jumped in when they saw the boy in the water.
“My sister started screaming at me to save her son,” Coco said, “and I tried and I tried.”
Coco started performing CPR.
“I swear his eyes fluttered for a second,” Coco said. “I thought I had it.”
“They tried everything to save him, and it just couldn’t happen,” Hanscom said.
Kaleb was pronounced dead at the hospital after he could not be revived, according to the police report.
This tragedy is not uncommon. Florida has the highest drowning-death rate in the nation for toddlers ages 1-4, according to the Florida Department of Health. And though Florida’s drowning-death rate has been slightly, if steadily, declining, Volusia County’s rate has been higher than the state’s in the past six years.
Further, according to the Department of Health in Volusia County, between 2003 and 2014, Deltona was the location of 37.5 percent of the county’s toddler deaths by drowning — a higher percentage than any other area of the county.
Deltona City Commissioner Chris Nabicht, a former deputy chief for the Deltona Fire Department, said the higher number can be attributed to the number of children who live in Deltona.
“Deltona has more children than any other cities in the county,” Nabicht said, noting that Deltona has a total of nine elementary schools.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, children under 5 accounted for 6.2 percent of Deltona’s population of 85,182, while children under 5 make up 5.7 percent of Florida’s.
Children account for 5.1 percent of Orange City’s 10,960 people, 6.2 percent of DeLand’s 26,980, and 4.7 percent of DeBary’s 19,447 residents. Those cities saw no toddler deaths by drowning in 2003-2014.
“One child drowning is way too many,” Nabicht said. “It’s unacceptable.”
“It’s a serious problem,” Becky Puhl said. “People don’t think it happens as much as it does.”
Puhl is a Deltona resident and runs Swim With Becky and Friends, a business that provides swim lessons to children, particularly babies and toddlers. She is an active member of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance.
Puhl said people don’t hear about the number of rescues performed to save a child from drowning, only deaths from downing — “if it’s a slow news day.”
While many resources on drowning trends are specific to fatal drownings, the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies drowning outcomes as death, morbidity (or brain damage), and no morbidity.
Volusia County Health Department public-information officer Stefany Strong said that when data became available in 2011 that showed the county’s toddler drowning rate was higher than the state’s, several community partners came together to do something about it.
One solution they proposed was stepping up public education about the three layers of protection: First is supervision, then barriers, then emergency preparedness.
According to Waterproof Florida, a statewide drowning-prevention campaign, supervision is “the first and most crucial layer of protection,” and means that “someone is always actively watching when a child is in the pool.”
“We know that parents are busy in the home,” Strong said. “But we also know that toddlers can be busy, too.”
To help remind parents and other adults of the need to watch children closely when near water, the Volusia County Drowning Prevention Task Force has been distributing water-watcher tags all summer. The tags are lanyards for adults to wear that serve as a reminder: If you’re wearing the tag, you’re watching the child.
The second layer of protection is barriers.
“A child should never be able to enter the pool area without supervision,” Strong said.
According to Florida’s Residential Swimming Pool Safety Act, a new pool must have at least one of the following safety requirements: It must be isolated from access to a home by an enclosure; it must be equipped with a pool safety cover; each door and window providing direct access from the home to the pool must be equipped with an exit alarm; all doors providing direct access from the home to the pool must be equipped with a self-closing, self-latching device with a release mechanism placed no lower than 54 inches above the floor.
All pools built after Oct. 1, 2000, were required to have one of these safety features to pass final inspection and receive certificate of completion. According to Waterproof Florida, however, more than 90 percent of Florida’s swimming pools were built before the law was enacted.
Third is emergency preparedness.
“It is so important for our parents to learn CPR,” Strong said.
According to Waterproof Florida, “The moment a child stops breathing, there is a small, precious window of time in which resuscitation may occur, but only if someone knows what to do.”
The Florida Department of Health, statewide and in Volusia County, produces annual reports to educate people about the problem of child drownings.
Safe Kids, an organization dedicated to preventing injuries to children, spun off the Volusia County Drowning Prevention Task Force, to raise awareness about the problem and safety measures parents can take.
Volusia Flagler Family YMCAs offer swim programs for all ages, including infants, at all family centers. Water-safety classes are also offered during all community swim days. The community swim fee is $3 for adults, $2 for children, and $5 for the whole family. Community swims are 1-4:30 p.m. Sundays in DeLand, and 3:30-7:30 p.m. Fridays at the Four Townes Family YMCA in Deltona.
Becky Puhl, the woman behind Swim With Becky and Friends, offers swim lessons to children, particularly babies and toddlers in West Volusia and surrounding areas. She got involved when her family moved into a home on a lake.
She worried about her young son and his sister, who is six-and-a-half years older.
“My biggest worry,” Puhl wrote on her website, was that if my son escaped supervision, my daughter would feel that she was to blame should he reach the lake.”
Puhl offers scholarships to make swim lessons available to families that might have difficulty affording them.
Despite all these awareness efforts and precautions in place, sometimes it isn’t enough. Things happen anyway. Kaleb Hanscom’s family knows.
“I took the steps to keep the child safe. We did it,” Coco said.
There were several locked doors between the house and the Coco family pool, which also had a screen enclosure and a locked gate. However, shortly before the drowning, the family’s German shepherd had been chasing a squirrel and tore a hole in the screen. Kaleb went through the hole to get to the pool.
Coco was trained in CPR, and Kaleb had just been starting to learn to swim.
“It wasn’t neglect on anyone’s part,” Hanscom said.
“You can be one step behind them and be too late,” Coco said.
“I just want everybody to just be 150-percent cautious,” Hanscom said. “Even when you think it can’t happen to you, it can. And then all of your dreams, all of your ambitions for your kids just go down the drain.”
“I would give anything in the world to give my nephew back to my sister, because her life is no longer her life,” Coco said. “Nothing can replace what you have lost in those two seconds.”
“Every measure that you take is not enough,” Hanscom said.
Originally published in The West Volusia Beacon