Murky Waters

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The enough-is-enough concept when it comes to accidental child drownings still holds sway in some jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County. Sandi Gibbons, a public information officer for the District Attorney's Office, says that in her 12 years on staff she can't recall any prosecutions similar to the Rico or Perry cases.

"We'll go hard as can be on intentional child abuse or assault or whatever," Gibbons says. "But not for a kid drowning when you were stupid enough to leave the room or the pool area for a few minutes."

Elsewhere, however, the attitude is changing. In Park City, Utah, a man was sentenced to one month in jail earlier this summer after being convicted of negligent homicide in the death of his 28-month-old son. The man left the child in his pickup truck, then went to scout hunting locations for about an hour. The boy opened the door, wandered into the wild, and froze to death.

And last month, Pima County prosecutors filed their first negligent homicide charges in a child drowning incident with distinct similarities to the Maricopa County cases. Pima County Attorney chief criminal deputy Rick Unklesbay says that, on August 2, single mother Monique Castillo left her 2-year-old son and 13-month-old daughter alone in the bathtub. She then chatted outside with a neighbor for about 10 minutes. During that time, the little girl drowned.

Castillo has pleaded not guilty.

"These are very tough cases," Unklesbay says. "You're dealing with families who already have suffered a loss, and so this does compound the tragedy. You're not dealing with criminals, per se, here. You can't say it was an intentional act, so you have to look at it as being so negligent. I think the public understands the need for us to look hard at these cases, as long as it has to do with someone else."

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.

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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin