A deadly toll: Hillsborough leads the state as number of child drownings spikes

Hillsborough County officials are working to boost prevention efforts after "heartbreaking" year.
Emily Plas supports her 9-month-old son Cash as he climbs out of the pool during a class to prevent drowning at Seal Swim School in Lutz on Thursday, January 10, 2019. Last year, the number of child drownings in Hillsborough country spiked to at least 11 cases, more than the previous two years combined. Groups like the Children’s Board spend hundreds to thousands warning parents that pools and retention ponds can be fatal for unsupervised children
BRONTE WITTPENN | Times Emily Plas supports her 9-month-old son Cash as he climbs out of the pool during a class to prevent drowning at Seal Swim School in Lutz on Thursday, January 10, 2019. Last year, the number of child drownings in Hillsborough country spiked to at least 11 cases, more than the previous two years combined. Groups like the Children’s Board spend hundreds to thousands warning parents that pools and retention ponds can be fatal for unsupervised children
Published Jan. 14, 2019

TAMPA — The call to Dionne Samuel from her mother was short and frantic: Daniel is getting CPR. You need to come.

Desperate for more information about her 3-year-old son, Samuel called everyone she knew as she battled traffic.

Her brother redirected her to a nearby hospital on Fletcher Avenue but the security guard would not let her in the emergency room where her son lay. Samuel is a licensed practical nurse. She knew what that meant and broke down crying before doctors confirmed the worst.

"I knew his body was in there, but he's not there," she said.

She later learned that little Daniel had bolted from the car after his grandmother drove him home from daycare. Half an hour later, he was found floating face-down in a neighbor's pool. He was her only child.

"It was just a short window," Samuel said. "If he would have did something different, he probably would still be here."

Every year, Florida's treasure of coastlines, rivers, natural springs and backyard swimming pools prove lethal to children. Nowhere was that more true than in Hillsborough County last year, where the number of drownings spiked to 11, the highest in the state and more than the previous two years combined.

Another six children drowned in Pasco County — two more than in 2017 — and one in Pinellas County. Statewide, the number of child drowning deaths was 88, up 7 percent from 2017, according to Florida Department of Children and Families data.

Often, the margin between mishap and tragedy was heartbreakingly small.

Jazmine Neal,3, slipped out of her Lutz home when her older sibling let the dog out. She was found floating in the family pool. Four-year-old Alexander Diaz was discovered at the bottom of an 8-foot-deep pool less than two weeks after they moved into a New Tampa home. He had never lived near a pool or had swim lessons, according to medical examiner records.

The youngest Hillsborough victim, Daleah Morgan, slipped out of her Brandon home along with a 2-year-old sibling, possibly through a 3-foot tear in a porch screen.She drowned in a retention pond just 12 days from her first birthday.

For Hillsborough agencies that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on child swimming and adult education programs, 2018 was tough. Along with deaths from unsafe sleeping, drownings are considered preventable deaths. Education programs drill into parents the dangers of leaving young children unattended, the importance of swim lessons, and the need for door alarms and barriers around home pools.

"We really do try to reach our community where they work, live and play," said Paula Scott, director of public relations for the Hillsborough County Children's Board. "It's a huge effort for us and every time a child in our area dies from an accidental drowning, I would be lying if I said I didn't take it personally and wonder what more I could have done."

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Even before the year was out, the Children's Board was making plans to step up prevention efforts. This year, it will spend an extra $140,000 on a mobile swim program that brings swim instructors to low-income apartment complexes with communities pools. It will also make up to $100,000 in grants available for simple maintenance fixes like pumps and filters that prevented swimming lessons from being offered in some income-restricted apartment complexes.

"We've really looked at this data to see what needs were a barrier to getting swim lessons," said Kelley Parris, the Children's Board executive director.

The need to bring swim programs into low-income communities was emphasized by a 2017 USA Swimming Foundation study. It found that 79 percent of children in households with incomes below $50,000 have no or little swimming ability.

The additional money should more than double the number of children who get lessons from the 646 kids the program served in 23 locations last year, said Amanda Walker, aquatics executive director for the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA, which runs the program. There will also be more one-on-one instruction for special-needs children.

Residential pools are usually the biggest risk for children. It's estimated there are more than 77,000 in Hillsborough, said Charlene Cobb, a registered paramedic who is chair of the Pinellas Safe Kids Coalition and also works on the Prevent Needless Deaths campaign.

But drownings happen in ponds and bathtubs. Children can drown in just an inch of water in a bucket.

"People think they're good parents and it's not going to happen to them," Cobb said. "Even the best parents when they get home from work and are cooking dinner and it's all of a sudden: 'Where did the baby go?' "

The grim task of analyzing many of the drownings falls to the county's Child Abuse and Death Review Committee, a state-mandated group that includes representatives from the sheriff's office, the Healthy Start Coalition and the Florida Department of Health, among others.

Last week, the committee agreed to work on new recommendations for prevention measures. One area of concern: reaching part-time child minders like grandparents, other relatives and family friends. About half of the 2018 deaths in Hillsborough occurred when the child was in the care of a relative or friend.

"We don't always have access to the grandparents or other caregivers," said committee co-chairwoman Jane Murphy, who is also executive director of Healthy Start. "A lot of the time, these kids are with a grandmother or uncle. Someone has to be really vigilant about watching them."

Eleven months after Daniel's death in February, the emotion is still raw when Dionne Samuel talks about the loss of her son.

In the weeks that followed his death, she struggled to keep her life together. She blamed herself for not being there and questioned whether he died because she didn't deserve such a good child. She dropped out of her classes to become a registered nurse and her relationship with her mother was strained.

Worst of all was no longer being Daniel's mom.

She misses the way he would run to the door for a hug and kiss when she came home , how he would name every color of every item of clothing when she was getting him dressed.

"You lose your role," she said. "You don't get to get up and make breakfast. It's hard transitioning from being someone doing everything to doing nothing."

For months afterward, she felt like a spectator in her own life, there physically but not connected or "in tune." In August, Samuel resumed her nursing studies but even her job is sometimes a reminder of the "sweet" young boy whose daycare teacher said was the only child who knew all his classmates' names. She wants parents to know they need to get their children swimming lessons even if they don't have a pool.

"To have to go in and take care of other children when you weren't there for your own child, that's very hurtful," she said. "I didn't get to do CPR or anything, or check for a pulse. It was too late."

Just four days into 2019, Florida recorded its first child drowning of the new year.

Kayden Bond slipped away from a sleeping great-grandparent at a Bradenton home and got out of the house through the sliding doors. The 3-year-old boy was found at the bottom of the pool.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at or at (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

Keeping children safe:

• Pool owners can install fences with a lock and self-closing gate to keep children away from the pool when an adult is not present. • Installing door alarms can alert a parent or caregiver that an exterior door has been opened, especially if the door has access to any body of water like retention ponds, canals or even fountains. • Young children can drown in as little as one inch of water. Ensure bathtubs, mop buckets & inflatable pools are drained after each use. • Always provide adult supervision for children in or around water. Children drown silently and in as little as 20 seconds. Designating a "water watcher" is a simple measure that ensures an adult is supervising children at all times when they are in or around water. • Enrolling children in formal swimming lessons reduces their lifetime chances of drowning by 88 percent. • Become CPR Certified. A drowning victim has a significantly increased chance of a positive outcome if CPR is started immediately versus waiting for first responders to arrive.

Source: Children's Board of Hillsborough County