The Complicated Truth About Children and Drowning

How can something so preventable happen so disturbingly often?

By Catherine Matusow March 30, 2015 Published in the April 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The first thing you need to know is that drowning is usually a quiet thing.

Jack Kreye, 4 years old, 40 pounds, and around three feet tall, was shuffling around his parents’ new pool in 2008 when he discovered that his sister’s bucket had somehow ended up in the water. “He couldn’t reach it, so he found a shovel,” remembered his mother Sherry. It was a chilly day in March, which is why Jack was wearing heavy boots, pants, and a sweatshirt when he fell in while reaching for his sister’s bucket. He sank to the bottom almost immediately, even as his parents were carrying on a discussion just 30 or 40 feet away. There was no splash, no flailing, only silence.

“Drowning is very quiet,” Sherry continued. “They don’t scream out, they don’t thrash….Dave was talking with me. We never saw Jack slip in.”

Alexander Cannon

Image: Bonnie Cannon

Around 2002, Wayne and Bonnie Cannon’s son Alexander was just 2 when he nearly drowned while the Tomball family was visiting a relative whose house had a pool. “Plop, there goes my son in the deep end,” recalled Wayne. For a second, everyone stared at each other, stunned. Bonnie heard someone say he’d fallen in and ran screaming from inside the house. In the few seconds it took her to run to the pool, Alexander’s body lay motionless in six-foot-deep water. “It didn’t even look like he was fighting,” Bonnie said. Wayne jumped in wearing his clothes to get the boy. “He was only in there for a matter of seconds,” recalled Wayne. “I couldn’t believe how much water he’d ingested.”

If the sounds of drowning don’t fit our expectations, neither do the children who drown. Contrary to what you might expect, they are rarely the victims of neglectful parenting. According to a 2004 study by Safe Kids Worldwide, an organization dedicated to educating the public about child safety, 88 percent of all children who drown are under some kind of supervision at the time. And death by drowning strikes families of every race, economic group, and level of education, although the number of Hispanic and African American victims is disproportionately high. What we can say for sure is that Texas is ranked second in drowning deaths by state, and that more drown in Harris County than any other county in the state.

Drowning is the number one cause of death for children under 4. Last year, 73 Texas children died in pools, lakes, rivers, hot tubs, bathtubs, and ditches. For every fatality, another four children were hospitalized or received treatment in an emergency room for complications due to drowning, according to Kristen Beckworth of the Center for Childhood Injury Prevention at Texas Children’s Hospital. She also serves on the Texas Child Fatality Review Team, which investigates, along with law enforcement, every death. In most cases, Beckworth said, the conclusion is that the drownings were accidental, although preventable.

And so, the inevitable question: how could something so preventable happen so disturbingly often? Could misperceptions about swimming pools—including the look and sound of drowning—be to blame?

“Bria called everybody from her great-grandmother to her grandmother to let them know that the next day she was going swimming,” remembered her mother, Deonesia Grays. “This was her first time.”

Next month will mark 10 years since Bria Harvey’s first day in a pool, the same day that the 4-year-old drowned. Ironically, it was Grays’s fear of her daughter drowning that had kept her from letting Bria go into the water until then. “There was something in me that, I feared it,” she said. “But this particular year she was persistent.” Bria wanted to be like her big brother, 6-year-old Deon, who already knew how to swim.

The tragedy unfolded at a pool party, a birthday celebration for the 2-year-old son of one of Grays’s friends. The pool was in an apartment complex in southwest Houston, and the party consisted of just five children supervised by Grays and her friend. After the three oldest children jumped into the pool, Grays decided to make a quick trip to the woman’s apartment for towels and fixings for hot dogs and hamburgers, leaving Bria in her friend’s care.

While she was upstairs—“it couldn’t have been three minutes,” she told me—the birthday boy took off running from the pool. Grays’s friend ran after him, though not before instructing Bria to sit down. While the woman was tending to her own child, however, Bria entered the shallow end, not far from the children already swimming. The depth of the water there was just three feet.

Grays was on her way back to the pool when she heard her friend’s screams as she rushed to the scene and her daughter was pulled to the surface. A passerby happened to know CPR and began administering it. 911 was called, medics arrived, and Bria was quickly whisked away to a nearby hospital. But it was too late. Grays’s daughter died around 20 minutes after her arrival.

“We’ve seen this in studies again and again,” said Stephanie Chapman, a psychologist at The Center for Children and Women, speaking of child drownings in general. “When two adults are present, each is less attentive than if there is only one, so it can easily happen that someone shifts their attention for a moment, trusting that the other adult’s got it, when no one is clear on their responsibility.”

There is a technical term for this phenomenon: diffusion of responsibility, something psychologists and sociologists have been studying for decades. The idea is, the more adults that are present and vested with the power to take charge in a situation, the less likely it is that any one of those adults actually will take charge. In other words, having too many supervising adults present might make a drowning more, rather than less, likely.

No one knows if that’s why Colin Holst, a 4-year-old Austin boy, died in 2008, but all the ingredients for diffusion of responsibility were present. Colin was swimming in the pool of a local gym, and at the time of his death there were seven lifeguards on duty, according to several online accounts. We were told the boy’s mother, Jana Holst, did not wish to speak with us about the events of that day (by a representative of her charity, Colin’s Hope), but she was at the pool too, again according to online accounts, sitting in a lounge chair poolside with some other mothers.

The pool was cleared for a short period and the lifeguards took a break. After the lifeguards returned and it reopened, Colin waded back into the pool and under a mushroom waterfall. At some point, perhaps obscured from view by the cascading water, the boy became submerged in the shallow water. By the time he was discovered and pulled out, Colin was already dead.

We take social cues from others, even when it comes to our own children, said Chapman, speaking about diffusion of responsibility in general, not about the Holst case. “Say you’re at a birthday party and all the kids are running and jumping and the moms are casually watching them. That causes us to lower our sense of vigilance and act different than when we’re alone with our children. There’s a lot going on that can alter an adult’s judgment that we’re not aware of.”

As it happens, Jack Kreye fell into his parents’ pool just after it was completed. The Kreyes, who lived in San Antonio at the time and now live in Richmond, were getting a fence for the structure but hadn’t yet put it up before starting to fill the pool with water. Jack and his father Dave were cleaning up debris from the just-finished construction site, and at some point the boy wandered away, toward a pile of dirt where he liked to play with his truck. Dave Kreye, meanwhile, feeling hungry, walked over to the back door of the house to discuss dinner plans with his wife. His back wasn’t turned for more than a minute, he believes.

Bria Harvey and her brother Deon

According to Chapman, another phenomenon may be happening in these kinds of cases: habituation. “If we’re visiting a friend at their pool and watching the kids like hawks for the first 30 minutes,” she said, “it’s human nature that we will habituate to things like our own anxiety. We start to relax, and make an error in judgment in hour two.” In the Kreyes’ case, the mere fact of living with a backyard pool under construction for months perhaps made the family less aware of the dangers the pool posed. The fact that the family spent a lot of time in the water—Jack’s mother is a lifelong swimmer who taught and coached swimming—may also have added to the family’s false sense of security. (Just 4, Jack already knew how to swim, though not strongly enough to do so in heavy clothing and shoes.)

Habituation also happens at community pools, where the chaotic, anxiety-producing atmosphere may actually make it more likely that parents let down their guard. As Chapman put it, “When we’re in a situation that feels stressful, it is also human nature for us to quickly habituate to it.”

Ellen Peters, a psychology professor
and director of the Decision Sciences Collaborative at The Ohio State University, specializes in risk perception and how it affects decision-making. In some situations, she said, we assess a situation methodically, first identifying potential risks and carefully examining them, and then considering the likelihood of various scenarios playing out. Having gathered all this speculative data, we then make a decision about what to do.

A hospitalized Jack Kreye after his accident

Image: Sherry Kreye

“But there’s this whole other way of thinking about risks, through experiences and emotions, that has a really long evolutionary history,” Peters said. “We used our feelings and experiences to decide if water is safe to drink quickly and automatically. Is it safe to walk down this dark street? I don’t have time to think about it, I’m going to do it or not do it. This kind of automatic thinking guides our risk perception.” Such thinking leads to yet another irony: the more times a family visits a pool, the riskier that experience becomes. With each successive visit, Peters said, parents see that “their child is around water and is safe and safe and safe. Our experience says, this is safe. So our emotional reaction to the horror of what could happen quells over time. It may be that that can lead a poor parent to stray.”

In addition, as noted, our attentiveness is far from perfect—now more than ever. “There’s too much information in the world, too many options,” Peters said. “We’re capable of enormous feats of intellect, but we’re limited nevertheless, because we use these little mental shortcuts. It happens automatically. Imagine you’re a mom at a pool. There’s this mass of information to pay attention to...and we as humans are limited in our processing capacity. So we end up simplifying the world. We’re simply not capable of paying attention to everything.” Chapman agreed. “We are incredibly fallible with our attention when there is competition in demand.”

Colin Holst

Image: Jana Holst

The better experts understand our fallibility, the more they endorse a set of guidelines for children and pools not dissimilar from those adopted for drinking and driving. If you invite others to drink alcohol in your home, “now there’s a social responsibility that the person throwing the party is attending to people’s safety needs,” said Chapman. “That never happened 10 years ago. We need the same thing set up when someone’s hosting a party with a swimming pool.”

Chapman knows that such measures might be unpopular with some, particularly at this cultural moment, when the pendulum is swinging away from overly involved parenting, and toward less supervision in the name of what some are calling free-range kids. “A lot of people will look at best practices around pools and say, ‘That’s for wusses. I never had that growing up and we were fine,’” she said, noting that people said the same thing before the implementation of seatbelt laws. “It wasn’t that we didn’t need [seatbelts]. It was through the luck of the draw that nothing bad happened.”

So how can we protect our children and encourage their independence at the same time? “I don’t think you have a good answer for it,” said Chapman, advising parents to educate themselves about prevention, use water safety checklists available online, and put systems into place [see sidebar, opposite page]. How much anxiety is too much? “If it impairs the ability to enjoy events or the children’s ability to engage in appropriate activities, then maybe anxiety is getting in the way.”

In the days and weeks following her daughter’s death, Deonesia Grays no doubt kept going over that horrific day. What if Bria hadn’t jumped in? What if her friend’s 2-year-old hadn’t run off? What if the woman had carried Bria with her when she ran after him? What if she herself had brought her daughter upstairs with her? What if the family had simply decided to stay home? But there was another, more insidious question, this one asked by others: How could you let such a thing happen?

“I shut down for about three years,” said Grays. “You don’t want to have to deal with the people who feel like you didn’t do enough….The best way for me to avoid it was to stay to myself.” Eventually, she said, her pain turned into anger. Constantly asked to defend herself, Grays began to feel like she was under attack.

“People are often isolated after an event like this,” said Chapman. “Social support is really important….People can say the simplest thing that the other person will listen to or carry. ‘Why didn’t you ask her to watch more?’ The person will carry that with them for years.”

For Grays, the grieving isn’t constant anymore, but there are still moments when it overwhelms her and her son Deon. In January, on what would have been Bria’s 14th birthday, her now-16-year-old brother broke down and cried, mourning the sister he had been close to, the diva who loved clothes and purses and the praise dancers at church. “In 10 years, I had never seen him cry,” Grays said. “He broke down. His thing was, he needed to be strong for me, and now it’s my time to be strong for him.” It was for Deon’s sake, Grays said, that she eventually sought professional help during the darkest days following Bria’s death.

“If it wasn’t for my son, I wouldn’t be sitting her talking to you,” she said. “That’s just honesty. I wouldn’t have a reason to. I’m thinking that your children should outlive you.” And while she has discovered ways to cope with her loss, her grief recovery is “a process,” and an ongoing one.

While at a nail salon recently, Grays crossed paths with a woman she hadn’t seen in 10 years, the woman she had trusted to watch Bria on that day in 2005. Grays overheard the woman say that she has two children now, which was hard to stomach. Grays has never forgiven her former friend, she said, and likely never will.

“What we know about grief is that finding meaning in the loss through public education can be helpful for someone to transcend such a trauma,” said Chapman. Indeed, for some grieving parents, creating a foundation or a service organization in their child’s memory can significantly help in the healing process.

Three years after her daughter died, Grays founded Bria’s House, an organization that provides swimming lessons to kids who can’t afford them, as well as CPR classes to adults. “I started having fundraisers, selling dinners, making money to help kids,” Grays said, “so that became my passion.”

Grays also works with Safe Kids Greater Houston to spread awareness about drowning risks. Being forced to tell Bria’s story over and over “becomes overwhelming sometimes,” she admitted. “I was very hesitant at first, but at the same time I felt like, somebody needs to hear me, hear this story. They need to know there is help, that they have options.”

Jeff and Jana Holst also started a foundation—Colin’s Hope—just months after their son’s death. “It wasn’t until after Colin died that we learned drowning was the number one cause of unintentional death for children under five years old,” Jeff Holst wrote in an e-mail to me. “It has since become our mission to make sure parents learn this information ahead of time, and not because they’ve lost a child to drowning.” 

Related: Nine Tips for Safe Swimming from the Colin's Hope Foundation

Sherry and Dave Kreye have become advocates for pool safety, volunteering for Colin’s Hope and telling their own son’s story in hope of convincing other parents to take heed, although they haven’t started their own foundation.

The Kreyes' son Jack was one of the lucky ones. By the time he was pulled from the pool, he had been underwater for at least five minutes while his parents, not realizing he had fallen in, searched for him. He wasn’t breathing, had turned purple, and his heart had stopped. Dave immediately began performing CPR and did so for all the 10 minutes it took for help to arrive. “He was unresponsive,” said Sherry. “He never came to.”

After perhaps an hour in the emergency room, she recalled, “they came out and talked to us. They said it wasn’t good, that he might not survive. They gave him a 40 percent chance of living through the first night.” But Jack did survive that night. He spent 10 days in a medically induced coma while doctors worked to make his lungs functional again. Still, the Kreyes were warned that in cases like Jack’s, brain damage was likely. At the end of two weeks, however, to the astonishment of his doctors and everyone else, Jack Kreye walked out of the hospital under his own power.

“He was fine,” said Sherry. “He was a little miracle boy.”

“It’s really clear, in terms of preventable deaths or child injuries, that these are happening daily,” said Chapman, “and it’s sheer luck that most of us aren’t having major harm come to our children.” Still, our impulse to blame is almost instinctual, as if every one of these events is a fable with a moral about bad parenting. Why do we behave this way? Perhaps because the alternative—that we’re all vulnerable—is too hard to accept.When we hear about such tragedies, our instincts often tell us to blame the parent, which, besides adding insult to injury for the grieving mother or father, blinds us to the fact that these are risks we all face. This view is yet another dangerous misperception, experts say.

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