Murky Waters

The drowning death of a child is always a tragedy. But when does it become a crime? County prosecutors are wading into a dangerous debate.


Kids drown in pools, Jacuzzis, canals, bathtubs, buckets, just about whatever they can get into.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says drowning remains the number one cause of death of children from birth to 4 years old. Predictably, the main factors that lead to drownings are lack of supervision and lack of barriers.

Dr. Mary Rimsza, chair of the Arizona Child Fatality Review Team: "If the laws are interpreted liberally, there will be an awful lot of parents who will be facing prosecution."
Dr. Mary Rimsza, chair of the Arizona Child Fatality Review Team: "If the laws are interpreted liberally, there will be an awful lot of parents who will be facing prosecution."
Rick Romley won overwhelming public support for his new policy on child-drowning prosecutions.
Rick Romley won overwhelming public support for his new policy on child-drowning prosecutions.

Though most of the Valley's jurisdictions now require pool fencing or other safety devices, many of the 200,000-plus residential pools lack adequate barriers, according to fire department officials in Phoenix and elsewhere.

But even if every homeowner were to build an impenetrable fortress around his or her pool, children will continue to drown unless their caretakers are relentlessly alert. Being perfect, as every parent well knows, is humanly impossible.

"It's like a time bomb back there in those pools," says Mary Rimsza, herself a mother of two. "Parents need to be vigilant every minute of every day. Unfortunately, people are people, and people make mistakes."

The guilt that parents feel when their child drowns -- whether they were responsible in some way or not -- is unfathomable. Some of those parents say prosecutors ought to be extremely cautious before charging caretakers in child-drowning cases.

"I think you have to ask if it was malicious or intentional before you move forward in a prosecution," says Gilbert resident Druann Letter. "Did she have a 12-pack of beer in her? No, she didn't. I really think she didn't know that leaving her child in the bathtub was a dangerous thing to do. She wasn't educated, and she just didn't know any better."

On May 31, 1998, Druann and Tom Letter were going about their business at their home in Gilbert when their world collapsed. Druann was looking after her 8-week-old twins inside the residence, while her husband, a Tempe firefighter, was fixing a car in the garage.

Just for a moment or two, it seemed, each parent lost sight of their 3-year-old son, Weston, as he played alone near the pool. During that time, Weston, who was a good little swimmer, fell into the water and drowned.

Druann Letter later started Water Watchers, a nonprofit group that educates the public about water safety. She also works as drowning prevention and awareness coordinator for Phoenix Children's Hospital.

Letter says she tracked the Vanessa Rico case through the prism of her own sad experience.

"Some people believe that I should have been prosecuted for not having a fence all the way around, and for not having my eye on Weston when he drowned," she says. "We were the most overprotective parents around, that's what everyone used to tell us. Until you live in Ms. Rico's shoes, you're not going to get it. You feel like you're not in existence anymore. There's nothing worse than having to visit your child at his grave. Nothing worse than knowing that you could have prevented your child's death. A jail cell is nothing compared with that."

John Harrington Jr., another child-drowning prevention activist, lost his 3-year-old son Rex to a pool drowning in 1986. The circumstances were cruelly simple:

Neither Harrington nor his then-wife was at home, and the child's teenage baby sitter went inside to fix a sandwich for another child. She left Rex by the edge of the pool. He fell in, and drowned.

Harrington, now president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Heart Hospital, founded the Drowning Coalition of Central Arizona after his son's death, a group that is still going strong today. Like many people interviewed for this story, Harrington is ambivalent about prosecuting people for criminal negligence in their child's accidental death.

"Sticking your kid in a full tub may have crossed the line, though each case needs to be weighed, and carefully," he says. "Kids wander into the street, into the desert, and where were the parents? Where do you set the definition? I don't think there is a solid answer here, though, personally, I don't think the threat of prosecution is going to make anyone think, 'This is gonna happen to me.'"

However, Harrington's activist comrade, Ed Swift, comes to it from a slightly different perspective. Swift is a computer company owner whose Web site, www.sosnet.com, is a potent resource of drowning statistics, safety information and other data. He says he got involved in the issue because of his friendship with several Phoenix firefighters.

"I do have mixed feelings about this," Swift says. "The circumstances have to be pretty severe in an accidental drowning case, such as when someone walks out for 10 or 15 minutes, leaving their kid alone. Come on, now, that's severe."

Retired Mesa police detective Don Ryan -- no relation to Tim Ryan -- is no stranger to terrible things, intentional and unintentional, that parents have inflicted upon their children. But Ryan says prosecuting Rico-like cases is needless.

"There are so many drownings and other things where you just want to grab the parents and ask them, 'What were you thinking?'" he says. "But when you look deeper, sometimes you find out they're going to hell inside of themselves. I'm not talking about the beaters, molesters, killers, evil people. I'm talking about good parents in some cases who did a bad thing, sometimes just a five-minute bad thing."

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