Something terrible almost happened to my son when he was very young, and today, nearly 20 years later, I still feel as if all the good luck anyone could expect for an entire life was spent in one moment. It gives me a strange feeling — jittery, haunted — that my good-luck moment was the one where my son was spared.
I was a single parent, and we were living in a one-bedroom apartment. One morning, at about 6:30, I was awakened by the sound of the doorbell. I glanced over at Aaron’s crib, hoping he had slept through the interruption. His crib was empty.
It suddenly felt as if all the air had been vacuumed out of the room, and I ran to the front door with a whooshing sound in my ears, hands so shaky I could barely turn the knob. A woman I’d never seen before was holding 2-year-old Aaron in her arms. I remember it was raining, and the ankles of his blue pajamas were soaked.
“My boyfriend was leaving for work and saw this tiny, wet kid walking down the street,” she said. “Two blocks away. So he brought him home, and I was like, ‘That kid’s familiar.’”
I grabbed Aaron and squeezed him much too tightly, still not able to catch my breath. “What were you doing?” I asked. “You can’t go outside by yourself!” And Aaron gave me a smile full of private, sleepy pleasure, a smile he gives his girlfriend today. “In the rain,” he said.
I’ve told that story so many times that when I recall what happened, it’s the memory of it that I’m conjuring rather than the actual event itself. But the memory is doctored. In the version I tell people and clearly see in my head, Aaron had never gotten out of his crib before that day, and he somehow figured out how to open a double-bolted door. But in reality, I knew perfectly well that the bed didn’t hold him. And — here’s the bad part — I accidentally left the front door unlocked.
Had my son somehow died that day, and the fact of the unlocked door came to light, I could have been arrested and formally charged with negligence. I am generally a good parent, but I had a really bad lapse, and fortunately I never had to pay for it.
Many others aren’t so lucky. And occasionally, rather than die on a city street, their kids drown in backyard swimming pools.
Those parents — the careless, the unfortunate, the negligent and sometimes the just plain selfish — are the subject of an ambitious and painful feature article that will be posted on Nov. 23. The piece looks at a slow change that’s taking place among some of the public officials and safety advocates who deal with child drownings.
Rather than say, “The parents have suffered enough” and close the book on a horrible event, these professionals believe that, in many cases, those responsible should be prosecuted, or at least investigated.
“We investigate when parents leave their babies in a hot car, or when they leave a loaded handgun lying around and it goes off,” one advocate points out in the article. “So what’s the difference? Why don’t we do the same with drownings?”
Our feature is impeccably researched and makes many excellent points that I agree with philosophically. Yet I remain deeply unsettled on this issue, both as a journalist and as a parent.
On one hand, three separate studies have shown that parents of children who drown are more likely to have case files with Child Protective Services, as well as histories of drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence. In addition, the article cites multiple cases where a parent showed mind-boggling negligence. While that mother may be suffering today, the true victim of her selfishness is the child who is now dead. That extremely young person who lost his or her life deserves the same diligence under the law as anyone else who dies as a result of someone’s negligence. If a child is hit by a drunk driver, we don’t hesitate to prosecute. So why then do we hold back if that same child drowns because their mother was drunk on the couch? Does her grief mitigate the wrong that was done? To me, the answer is “no.”
Yet there are other cases in the article that remind me of what happened with Aaron. A back gets turned, a door is left open, and 10 minutes later someone’s mother is on her knees sobbing, the world stripped to bare metal. I could not convict that person. To do so would be to sentence myself.
Our article doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but it does lay out difficult, nuanced questions that have been avoided for too long. Hopefully, by dealing with this issue head on, we can spur further discussion and shed light in an area all too often engulfed in darkness.