Murky Waters

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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."

At first blush, the public seems to want much tougher treatment of negligent caretakers -- until it comes to themselves. New Times recently spoke with seven people at random at Paradise Valley Mall, including two young mothers with children in tow.

Each of the seven -- five of whom are parents themselves -- applauded the prosecutions of Vanessa Rico and Janis Perry.

"You just don't put your kid in a tub and then split," said John Lugo, the Phoenix father of a 4-year-old girl. "There's just no excuse for putting her in a place where she could get hurt."

But all but one of the seven reconsidered their position when asked, "Have you unintentionally ever put your child somewhere where he or she was at risk for serious injury or death?"

"Of course I did, and my babies were very lucky," said Joyce Spencer, a 44-year-old Scottsdale insurance agent. "I remember this like it was yesterday. We had a pool without a fence. This was a long time ago, and we were stupid. My 2-year-old was playing near the pool, and my nephew -- he was 8 or 9 -- was over swimming. I ran in to get the phone. I think I told my nephew to keep an eye on my Ralphie. I'm gone three or four minutes, tops. As I walk back out, I see Ralphie tumble in the water. I jumped in and got him out, and he was fine. But he really could have drowned."

Spencer is asked if she should have been charged criminally if he had drowned.

"Hmmm," she replied, stroking the head of her 3-year-old granddaughter. "I don't think so. Maybe. But maybe not. I really don't know."

Vanessa Rico never did testify at her trial, in part because she surely would have admitted to the jury that she had erred in leaving her babies unattended in the tub.

"Yes, I think it was my responsibility to be there with my baby," Rico told New Times shortly before her sentencing last month. "I have to live with what I did until I die. . . . But I see all those other people who screw up and don't get arrested and put on TV. Why did they pick on me and that other girl [Perry]? I am guilty of a bad accident."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin