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March 2, 2015 / 11 Adar , 5775
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Time For Designated Watchers

Kupfer-Cheryl-new

Within the last few days, with weeks of summer still ahead of us, I have read and seen news reports regarding very young children who tragically drowned in backyard swimming pools, despite being in relatively close proximity to parents and other adults.

In several of these horrific mishaps, the children (there were incidents of siblings who perished as well) had been safely ensconced in their home or visiting relatives, but had managed to somehow slip away from under the grownups’ noses, get themselves outside, where they either jumped or fell into a nearby swimming pool. In some of the instances, the child had unlatched a back or side door of the house, and had climbed over a fence surrounding the pool.

Their family members may have become aware after just a few short minutes that the child was absent, but sadly, a few short minutes is all it takes for a child to drown.

Most of the children were pre-schoolers, three or four or five years old. Old enough to manipulate a door handle or latch and walk out, but not old enough to be aware of the life-threatening danger they had put themselves in.

These children lived in different cities, states/provinces and countries and were racially and socially/economically diverse.

What they have in common, however, are parents and siblings and grandparents who will be wracked with grief and eaten up by guilt for the rest of their lives, tormented by what they know was a preventable loss.

How could it be, they wonder, that in a household with assorted, responsible adults such as grandparents, uncles and aunts, that no one noticed a child was missing? Many were truly stunned that the child had been able to open a locked door or gate, or climb up a fence double their height. Who would have dreamed, they wondered, that locked doors or gates or fences were not enough to stop an adventurous toddler?

The answer is obvious. At a gathering, one will glance at the child and see that he/she is in the room and then continue to shmooze or eat or gravitate into another room to talk to other people. You assume the child will remain in the room “where all the action is” or that he/she wandered off to play, or is currently snuggled on the lap of a beloved family member in another part of the house. This is the case 99% of the time, and therefore a reasonable conclusion with a benign outcome. However, that often correct presumption, when wrong, can have grave consequences.

In a previous column, I stated my opinion that a young child, (even two or three, in fact,) is likely safer when watched by one specific person, than is one or two whom several people surround.

A solo “watcher” knows that he/she cannot take his/her eyes off the child, as there is no backup person to “fill in the gap.”

Also there are few if any distractions that would impede the watcher’s focus. However, when there are a number of people in the room, there is a tendency to let down one’s guard, because there are so many “eyes” in the room. But it is a misguided attitude. People are not focused on the child; they are socializing, catching up on family happenings etc. Maybe they do look around, see the child and continue what they are doing with a false sense of security. In the meantime, the child has darted out.

In the summer, hundreds of heimische families in New York stay in bungalow colonies in the mountains. Many have three or more children under the age of 7. It is easy for a mother to get distracted while in the company of her peers and it is crucial that all the little ones are being watched at every moment. Sometimes, a parent can be too confident, believing that because there are so many other mothers around, someone will notice if a child is in trouble. That is not necessarily the case.

Nor can one blindly accept that “Hashem yishmor.” We are exhorted to take care of ourselves, and it goes without saying that we have to be extra machmir when trusted with the well-being of those who can’t take care of themselves – either because of extreme youth, age or physical or mental disability.

Because young children, especially those whose mobility exceeds their seichel, can, in a blink of an eye, put themselves in hazardous situations. Kids who don’t know how to swim fall or cluelessly leap into swimming pools; run out into the street; fall off of beds or dressers or ladders; are hit hard by heavy objects they pull off shelves; swallow poisonous substances or medications that resemble soda or candy; wrap curtain cords around their necks, etc. and in such situations, often the outcome is very serious injury or death.

And it can happen to anybody.

The lucky parents are the ones whose children had “close calls.” I remember a friend telling me years ago how her two-year-old grandson impulsively jumped into a pool (perhaps it was in a bungalow colony). Luckily his father saw him do so and, fully dressed in his Chassidic garb, jumped into the water and saved his son.

But heartbreakingly, not every story has a happy ending.

To help prevent these soul-destroying tragedies, I highly recommend that whenever there is a gathering of relatives or friends, there be a designated watcher per toddler/child. Just like responsible party-goers have a designated driver – a person who does not join the group in their uninhibited drinking of alcohol and thus is not inebriated so that he/she can safely drive everyone home, there should be a responsible teenager or adult assigned to a specific child. After half an hour or so, another person can take over. This way, the child is under constant scrutiny. Even three minutes of unintended non- supervision out of two hours can result in tragedy. Young children must be under supervision 100 percent of the time.

I also strongly suggest that families with young children buy motion detectors that they can place outside on their lawns, both front and back, and near a swimming pool or garage. These detectors sound an alarm if they sense motion. Usually they are used to deter burglars, but can be a relatively inexpensive way to be alerted that someone is outside when you weren’t expecting anyone to be. They can be annoying in that they might go off if a dog or squirrel dart by them, but that is a small price to pay to be made aware that a child is outside.

However, nothing is as efficient as a one-on-one child watcher. It may be inconvenient, or a hassle to assign a “volunteer” to shadow a toddler, but it is necessary for everyone’s peace of mind. When you save a life, you save a world. That’s certainly worth a few minutes of your time.

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