A new federal law requires drain covers that prevent children from being sucked in, but it's not being widely enforced.
Children's lives are at risk in swimming pools across the country as government agencies waffle on how to enforce the new federal Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, child safety advocates say. The law requires new drain covers on pool filtration systems.
The covers prevent children from being caught in the suction, disemboweled, and completely eviscerated -- "turning your insides basically into your outsides," said Alan Korn, public policy director of Safe Kids USA, a Washington-based non-profit organization dedicated to preventing injuries to children.
But despite the dangers -- and the federal law -- many pools are not operating in compliance with the law. It went into effect December 19, and pool operators have known about it for more than a year.
momlogic: How did you get involved in fighting for pool safety legislation?
Nancy: On June 15th, 2002, we were at a pool party with friends when my 11-year-old ran toward me with a look of horror and told me my 7-year-old, Graeme, was in the hot tub. She grabbed my hand and we ran. I jumped in and couldn't see her. It was a dark, black-bottom pool and it was bubbling, so I couldn't see below the surface. I put my head under water and I saw her, I started pulling at her, and I couldn't get her off the bottom. I didn't know what was holding her. A hundred things went through my mind. I came up screaming and went back down. I repeated this a few times.
I jumped out and was shrieking at all the people around, and they had no clue what was going on because they couldn't see her either. Others jumped in, and two adults eventually pulled her out. The force cracked the flat plastic drain cover, and the people indicated she was going to be OK. I collapsed on the grass and I could see them rolling her from side to side. The paramedics arrived and she was flown by helicopter to the hospital. I was driven straight there, and when I arrived, I learned my 7-year-old daughter had passed away.
momlogic: As a mother who has lost a child, how did you manage to turn your grief into action?
Nancy: I think initially my strength came from not wanting to see my other children lose their appreciation for life. A mother is an important source of strength, so I just felt like I had to give that to my surviving children and not lose myself in my own grief.
Then I began to read about what really happened to Graeme. I searched on the Internet and learned that other children had passed away from entrapment. I looked at the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) website and saw there were some things that could prevent entrapment from happening. I knew I had to do something because it all seemed unbelievable that there were voluntary things you could do. Why wouldn't they be mandatory?
momlogic: Was your father-in-law, former Secretary of State James A. Baker, able to help you in your efforts?
Nancy: When this occurred, he was in London and returned immediately. He was devastated. A few days after Graeme passed away, he looked at me and said, "Do something. This never should have happened, and I will help you."
As time went on, I found out the CPSC was holding hearings around the country on pool safety. I recognized entrapment was not on people's radar and thought it would be a good opportunity to bring attention to it. So I wrote testimony about what had happened to my daughter. I testified in front of the CPSC and delivered Graeme's story.
momlogic: What legislation was passed?
Nancy: The organization Safe Kids Worldwide is a non-profit dedicated to preventing childhood injury and death. It was founded by a pediatric surgeon. Safe Kids was an enormous help to me because they essentially told me how I actually could participate in the process, and how I could be effective in promoting the idea of national legislation around pool safety.
I met with many U.S. representatives as a parent advocate for pool safety. I had to keep my strength in order to continue telling the story of what happened. Sometimes I burst into tears, but I knew I had to keep going to help get the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act passed.
Now the new federal law requires that pools have drain covers that prevent children from being sucked in.
momlogic: What is your message to other moms?
Nancy: If you have a pool company that services your pool, you need to demand they provide you with the guidelines that the CPSC is issuing now. Make sure your pool meets those requirements because it will make it safe. Parents should teach their children to stay away from all drains or any openings on the bottom or sides of pools. And in a hot tub, kids should never put their heads under water, under any circumstances.
Our hearts go out to Nancy and anyone who has lost a child in this horrific way.