Most child drownings happen in state’s lakes and rivers, data shows

Monitor staff
Published: 10/7/2019 5:58:27 PM

For the New Hampshire’s Child Fatality Review Committee, every meeting is an exercise in grim responsibility.

The two dozen-member group, convening regularly since 1996, exists to look where few want to: at the cases where a child or teen lost their life, from parental negligence to accidental poisoning to cancer.

But as the committee regroups in coming months, one area is demanding particular attention: the water. For the last decade, the leading cause of unintentional death for children nine years old or younger has been drowning.

Drowning has accounted for 15 deaths of children younger than 10 from 2009 to 2018, according to numbers in the state Vital Records Death Certificate Data, released by the Department of Health and Human Services. And it’s the cause behind 24 deaths in that same time period for those under 18.

Some deaths occurred in pools – three overall – but many others happened in lakes, ponds, and rivers, according to department data. Almost all took place in the summer.

And for those under nine, the deaths have surpassed other recorded causes, like pnueumonia, heart disease, and cancer.

The numbers represent a cumulative 10-year picture, and the totals may appear small. But to Patricia Tilley, deputy director of the Division of Public Health Services at DHHS and a member of the committee, they stand out. And as the fatality committee reconvenes with new statutory powers to review records and subpoena witnesses, drowning deaths will be one of several key focuses, members say.

In New Hampshire, it’s a complicated problem to address.

“This is a place where New Hampshire is slightly different than the rest of the country, in that we have these great, open bodies of water,” Tilley said. “And so our drowning deaths have typically occurred in those places rather than in pools.”

Lakes bring their own challenges. The water is murkier, the boundaries often not defined. And the water depth can change quickly – and dramatically.

It’s a big reason why Tilley recommends basic awareness and training for kids. It starts with proper floatation devices, but it extends to much more.

“Basic water safety knowledge of how do you watch (each other) – you don’t run off, you always have a buddy, that sort of thing,” she said.

The advice applies as much to adults as their kids, she said.

The Department of Natural and Cultural Resources staffs lifeguards at many of its lakes and beaches.

“We take it very seriously,” said Brent Wucher, public information officer at the department. “We haven’t had a history of any child deaths that I know of in our state parks.”

In areas not controlled by the state, state officials coordinate with towns to provide advice and support on public safety, Wucher said.

But hundreds of lakes and streams, from town swimming holes to White Mountain pools, are unsupervised – and part of the risk comes from parents taking children to those unsupervised areas.

It makes for a double-edged sword.

“That’s what makes New Hampshire great,” Tilley said. “We’ve got great access to beautiful places to swim, but there are not lifeguards there. There are not other folks that are paying attention. It really puts the responsibility back on the adults, to ensure that their children are monitored.”

It isn’t to say that pools are less dangerous – there have been deaths and near misses in New Hampshire pools too, Tilley said. The common denominator, Tilley says, is a need for vigilance.

“We want all families to be watching their kids,” she said. “That’s the main thing, is to really make sure that you have eyes on all the children that are in the water.”

As the child fatality review committee regroups, Tilley said one hope is that the meetings bring about collaborations down the line.

“I think there’s the opportunity to bring in those community organizations like the YMCA, that take a strong role in promoting water safety,” she said.

One organization is already working to do that. Swim New Hampshire, based in Concord, hosts swim classes that run the gamut: from Red Cross lifeguard training to a toddler’s first lessons.

“I basically started this business because I worry about drowning, and I worry about children drowning, and so this is how you prevent it: to teach kids to swim,” founder Karen Jenovese said. That means not letting them learn with floatation devices, which can lead to poor technique and unsafe habits, and getting some kids swimming as soon as they can walk.

Many parents may not know the signs of a distressed swimmer, Jenovese said. Frantic splashing and rapid up-and-down bobbing can look like playing to the untrained eye. To a lifeguard, they’re signs of a potential loss of control.

“It’s a tough thing to talk about, because drowning is preventable, but it happens so quickly that it could happen to anyone,” she said. “Even someone who is really conscientious about it like myself, it could have happened to my children when they were younger. It just happens so fast.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at, 369-3307 or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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