Killer funeral (draft)

I had a child who was a little “Houdini” – blink and he was gone.  Time came to buy a house – and when we bought one with a pool,  I began researching child drownings.  This led me to research other stories of child accidents.

I had started digging into these articles, and brain-storming with my husband who is the awareness expert training military and law enforcement. 

We had come up with a few child safety Protocols, when I attended a graveside service with some close friends.  They were burying their full term baby who was stillborn, and understandably, the 30 members of the small group were in deep mourning for this infant they were never able to know. 

The pastor began his prayer and we all bowed our heads with eyes closed.  A few seconds later, my eyes popped open when I suddenly remembered that the couple’s 2 year old daughter was wandering among the legs of the group. 

I looked around, spotted her, and observed that everyone else, including the pastor,  had their eyes closed in deep concentration.   I, now wide-eyed, watched the child walk away from the group, and down a small berm to a golf-cart pathway which wound through the cemetery. 

I decided to follow her, staying within the “reactionary gap”  -the gap between the adult and child which should be smaller than the distance from the child to any danger.  I eventually corralled, and and re-directed her to head back towards her grieving parents.  The unfolding dynamic could not have been more ironic. 

Later I had a conversation with myself thinking that I was taking this too far, it’s a little obsessive, people don’t think this way, and I was making a big deal out of nothing.  Besides, she was never in any danger because we were in the middle of a cemetery, and she was only wandering along a pathway; it’s not like she was on a busy road.  

I put the incident out of my mind.

The next week, I read this headline and freaked out: 

“Toddler Almost Drowns at Cemetery.” 

“A 2-year-old boy was in critical condition after nearly drowning at a cemetery during a funeral service for his great-grandfather in San Jose, police said Wednesday.

“The boy, identified as Aizik Buno, wandered away from his family during the viewing service Tuesday at Oak Hill Memorial Park at 300 Curtner Ave. and went outside to play with other children, police said.

“Family members discovered Aizik unconscious in the water a short time later and started CPR, authorities said. Brian Kestenblatt, the mortuary manager, said the boy had been found in a shallow, man-made stream that winds through a garden where cremated remains are interred.”

The boy would die within the week.

I don’t think parents ever recover from this kind of grief hangover when all paths lead back to self-recrimination and images of a dead child.

Then I thought, I have to keep working on this and find a way to make it public.

It is my reluctant passion, which has found me, as much as I have found it.  I try to shake it off; it finds me.


Reference titles (draft)

How Doctors Diagnose,

Why We Make Mistakes,

Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman

Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales

Blink, Malcolm Gladwell


Classic Accident Scenarios (draft)

How many of these Classic Accident Scenarios do you recognize?

Have these happened to you or anyone you know?

Children leaving the house and wandering away from home?

Children run over by parents in their driveways?

Children hit by cars in streets or in parking lots?

Children drowning in backyard pools? (or kiddie pools)

Children exiting house through doggie doors and drowning in pools?

Twins exiting through doggie door and drowning in pool?

Children drowning in neighbors’ pools?

Children drowning on vacation in lakes or streams?

Children drowning in puddles or ponds?

Children falling out of windows?

Children forgotten in cars?

Children crawling into cars and getting trapped?

Children drowning at funerals or family reunions?

Children shooting themselves with parents’ guns?

Children shooting themselves with relatives or neighbors’ guns?

Children run over by lawnmowers or backhoes or tractors on family property?

Children darting away from parents?

Children injured or killed at zoos?

Almost all of these scenarios can be prevented through Situational Awareness and adoption of Protocols.

Toddler Cliffhanger

Much of toddler drama never gets reported: the near misses, the close-calls, the mayhem and mischief.  Yet, these incidents, told by word of mouth and passed down through family lore, can be useful in understanding how childhood accidents unfold.

My brother, Christopher, was 3 when we visited cousins in Mesa Verde, CO, a national park renown for it’s Anastazi cliff dwellings.  The operational word in that statement for parents of toddlers is “cliff.”

We pulled up in our ’72 Chevy station wagon to a vista with a sweeping view off the rim of the mesa. My mother said to my father, “Maybe we should tie a rope around Chris.” (this was 1973, and absent child leashes, people did those kinds of things).  My father replied:  “I’ll just hold his hand.” And in a story about cliffs, toddlers and accidents, you might guess that he didn’t hold his hand, and you’d be right.

Here’s how the (near) tragedy unfolded:

Our two families pulled up to the vista point, and my father and uncle parked the two station wagons side by side.  In the days before child carseats, an older child sitting near the door, would open it, and the younger ones would scamper out.  The 9 cousins spilled out and raced over to the viewing area, where adults and children grouped themselves around a railing about 6 feet from the edge of the cliff.

The “wow factor” kicked in as we stood admiring the 50-mile view, and 800ft drop-off.   People can “focus lock”  on nature, on smart phones, or even in conversations with other adults, and stop paying attention to other activity around them.   Our group was relaxed and contented in spite of the peril right in front of us, because unless a big wind came along, we were in no danger at all.

Suddenly there was a simultaneous gasp, when collectively we noticed that my brother had climbed through the railing and was standing with the toes of his little Keds sneakers on edge of the cliff.  He was calmly staring at the vast horizon, oblivious that a mere hiccup could propel him hundreds of feet to the boulders below.

Death stalked our family that day.

It was a “shock and awe” moment:  Shock, that he was in danger of falling over a cliff high enough that it would mean certain death, and awe, as we were paralyzed with fear and indecision about how to approach him without startling him, or causing him to swivel and topple over the edge.  He was too young to understand how to carefully back up. Realistically that was his only option.  We’d gone from carefree tourists to horror-stricken bystanders, in a matter of seconds.

My mother had had this foreboding about visiting the Mesa Verde cliff, intuitively recognizing my brother’s need for restraint.  My father’s assertion that he would hold my brother’s hand reflects a “normalcy bias,”  the idea that things can be done in normal ways.  But in extraordinary situations, “normal” precautions are often inadequate.

The Swiss Cheese theory says that several little things can go wrong and end up as a huge problem, like stacking up several slices of Swiss cheese, sometimes there will still be a hole, all the way through the stack.  The “plan to hold his hand” failed because my brother was too quick out of the car, because he was sitting closest to the door, and other children’s bodies provided cover for him as he charged to the edge of the precipice.  In hindsight, it’s clear how we came so close to losing my little brother.

The Transition Protocol

Transitions are inherently chaotic. People are shuffling positions. Parents only have two hands and two eyes – and not in the back of their heads.  Children dart and dodge. They ignore commands. Toddlers  are brimming with volatile energy, especially after long stretches in the car.  A “Transition Protocol” is a standard plan to move from one location to another.   In this case, the Transition Protocol could have been used from the car, to the viewing area, followed by a “Supervision Protocol.”

Sample Transition Protocol

1. Pull into parking spot closest to destination.

2. PAUSE.  Do not allow anyone to exit the vehicle until your permission is given. Tell the children in advance what you expect, ie.  “There is a railing and a big cliff, and you need to stay behind the railing.  We need to stay together.”

3.  Evaluate weather and security situation.  Gather purse, backpack, sunglasses, and make phone calls or texts at this time. Put on make-up and sunscreen in the car, (not while walking across the parking lot.) or in a secure location, like a pool yard, or restroom.

4.  Slowly exit car. Give permission for older children to exit car, and remind them to remain standing next to the car.

5.  Unload strollers, blankets and other materials at this time.  Older children may help hold small items.

6.  Remove infants from carseats, (or remove whole carseat), and fasten infant into stroller or backpack, or hold in arms.

7.  Remove toddler last from car seat.  Toddlers have the most potential for a range of unpredictable behaviors combined with volatile mobility.  An adult or trained teen should hold the toddler’s hand, or toddler should be fastened into stroller or backpack,  shopping cart, carried or held with a leash.

8.  PAUSE:  TURN and LOOK AT THE CAR.  Say out loud:  “Have we forgotten anything?”  Use Situational Awareness to determine energy sources that may intersect your walk across the parking lot.  Quickly scan the area and notice: other moving vehicles. people getting into cars, people walking down the lanes, weather.

9.  Walk mindfully through the parking lot.  Keep your head up, not looking down into purse or bags. Avoid answering a ringing phone, as talking takes up “attention bandwidth” leaving less available  attention to be paid to the present surroundings.  Coach the older children to pay attention. Be prepared to correct them if they start running or horsing around during the transition.

Tragedy Averted

No one read about the three year old toddler who fell off Mesa Verde in 1973, because it didn’t happen.    My cousin, Cathy who was my same age, 13, the oldest of her 4 siblings. and a gymnast, sized up the situation and made a surprising decision.  She crouched down, slipped one arm and one leg through the rails, and crept ninja-style, up behind my brother.  Like a frog’s tongue zapping a fly, she whipped her arm out grabbing hold of the back of his shirt and in one fluid motion, yanked him back from the brink of annihilation.  To this day I doubt any of the rest of us had the presence of mind and the dexterity to do what she did -and succeed.

My traumatized aunt put her hand over her heart, said she felt faint, and left to lie down in the car. I remember seeing her stretched across the front seat, holding a handkerchief to her forehead.   My mother remembers her knees going weak.  Father scooped up my oblivious brother and held him for the remainder of our visit on the mesa. It is a haunting moment to this day.

Lessons learned

1. We needed a protocol.  My brother was too fast to manage without some plan to get to him when the car doors opened.  And he was too small to be easily seen in a group of older children.

2.  Better Situational Awareness would have alerted us to the fact that the railing was very close to the cliff, and we were not within the “reactionary gap” if someone decided to climb through the fence.  (A reactionary gap is the space between the caregiver and the child that must be within close enough range,  that if the toddler made a dash for the cliff, or street, or other danger, the parent would have enough time to reach them first.)

3. Car seats help contain children so they  can’t automatically bolt from the car. The problem is some toddlers  know how to unlatch their own carseats.  Then the parent needs to train the child to wait for permission to unbuckle herself from her carseat, or wait for the parent to do it.   It might help to announce that you’re almost at the destination, and warn the toddler in advance not to unbuckle the carseat.  “Maya, we are almost there.  When I stop the car, don’t unbuckle your carseat.  Wait until I say it’s ok, (or wait until I can help you.)   Do you understand?”

4.  Children slip through parents’ hands all the time.  They yank, and dash.  Asking a toddler to “Hold on” to the baby stroller or shopping cart, is unreasonable.  Parents can’t assume that the child will be motivated to hold on when given a reason to run off, like seeing their cousins further ahead.

5.  My brother needed to be on a leash in public, so says my mother.  He was active, curious and would forget “the rules.”  Don’t be afraid to use a leash on a toddler.  They have become much more acceptable and attractive, and are either part of harness, and now kiddie backpacks.   Leashes are seen for the safety helpers they are, and not just a “control device”  by  an over-anxious parent.  A mother using a leash on a 3-year-old is pre-cautious, and responsible.  She is not treating the child like a dog, but rather as a valuable treasure who she doesn’t want to lose track of, even for a moment.

Several years ago, a young girl, age 8, fell into the Grand Canyon.  When her mother saw her walking too close to the rim, she called her over, took her little face in her hands, and warned her not to go too close to the edge again.  Within minutes the girl had fallen over the edge, impaled herself in a tree further down the cliff, and died.  The question I had at the time was…”Did she understand what the words “too close” actually meant?”  Subjective commands aren’t always comprehended in a way the parent intends.   I hear people giving the same type of instructions to their toddlers, and if the words don’t register- and they often don’t –  the result is catastrophic.  Safety Protocols can fill the gap.

Susan Reeve

Toddler Awareness Project

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Hyperthermia kills toddler

These are called “Never” events: an event that is so catastrophic that the goal is for it to never, ever, happen, – ever. Through a mix-up in communication, a toddler was forgotten for 3 hours in a car in Florida, suffered, and died.

Each parent took a separate car to drop off the 3 children – each parent overlooked the toddler in the car, and the result was a painful accidental death.  Now that childhood disease have been brought under control, accidents are now the leading cause of death for children 5 and under.

A Delivery Protocol could have alerted the parents that they had forgotten the toddler in the car. Protocols are also called Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s)  because they are standard and should happen each and every time. Failure to follow them puts people at risk.  In this case the parents could have been parked near each other texting – (which could seem absurd,(but people do text each other in close proximity all the time), but in this case it could have saved a life.

Delivery Protocol example:  Father texts to mother:  “Dropped off Stevie.”
Mother texts to father: “Stevie, check.  Dropped off Maddie and Gemma”
Father replies back to mother:  “Roger, Maddie and Gemma.”

All three children would have been accounted for.  As it was, there was no accountability after the drop-off, and the mistake wasn’t discovered until 3 hours later when it was too late.

Obviously, Delivery Protocols would be used most often when one parent is dropping off the child, or children, and the other adult is in a different location.   The parent dropping-off would send a verification text to the other parent (or in the case of single parents, to another person concerned with the child’s well-being, ie. grandparent, friend, etc.  It would be to the same person every time).  If the second parent never receives a text, they would then text for information: “Were you dropping off the baby?  Waiting to hear from you.”  Two motivated adults would use the opportunity to hold each other accountable for the expected drop-off.

Megalodon Toddler

Megaloadon shark jaws - stock photo, paid model

Megalodon shark jaws – stock photo, paid model

The now extinct Megalodon shark had jaws  9 feet tall,  embedded with a halo of dozens of 7in. teeth.  Sixty feet long, the monster Megalodon could bite down on it’s prey with 18 tons of pressure; 36,000 lbs. of bone crushing ferocity.

“Stand right there,” I directed my two boys as I framed their 5 & 3 year old bodies together inside the Megalodon’s open mouth.  They would have been little tasty appetizers for the prehistoric monster shark.

I also wanted a photo of each one alone , so the youngest boy stepped to the side.  I positioned the 5 year old in the camera’s viewfinder.  I raised the camera again, my other eye shut, and click, click, click.  I wanted a unique mommento of our time together.

I lowered the camera to direct the boys to switch places, but I began blinking in astonishment that the 3 year old had vanished.  He was there 5 seconds earlier, standing calmly waiting his turn to be photographed.  (I should have held my son’s hand, or had him stand up against me in front of me while I took the picture.  If he moved, I would have felt it.  I could have had my older daughter hold his hand.  She had turned her attention to another exhibit close by, for a moment.  He had innocently exploited our attention loophole.)

I quickly began searching the nearest areas, but each display led to a bustling corridor.  My son was like a blood clot burst loose front the sidewall of an artery.  He could be traveling to the lungs, heart, or brain, in the vast circulatory system of the 100 year old natural history museum.   I was the one hyperventilating about to have a stroke, or so I felt.

The floorspace in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is the size of 18 football fields.  More than 4 milllion people a year visit in Washington, DC.

My son was a child accustomed to roaming and climbing on our farm in Virginia, but we were there on a Saturday in summer, with thousands of strangers in the immediate vicinity.  It would be like trying to find a dime on the field of Dallas Cowboy Stadium.

Within 30 seconds I knew I was in trouble and needed help.

I rushed up to a guard:  “Hi, I just lost my little boy. He’s 3.”

I felt panicky-hopeful.  Surely, the guard could make an announcement, and everyone in the museum would look around, then someone would see him, and I’d have him back momentarily.

The guard asked me my son’s name, and what he was wearing.  My mind went blank, but having just snapped his photo, I started to dig around for the camera when I remembered:

“Blue, blue, he’s wearing a navy blue polo shirt, and khaki shorts.”  I was stuttering and stammering, adrenaline hijacking my ability to think clearly and speak coherently.

The guard immediately reported the descriptors into his radio.  I noticed several guards, power walking in different trajectories,  following their training to implement emergency protocols to seal the exits.

There was no public announcement.  Instead we were the impetus to a major lockdown at the Smithsonian.

All exits were closed, and each person had to be individually let in and out of the building.   It was high drama searching for someone more precious than all the millions of priceless artifacts in the world’s most famous Natural History Museum.

Does it makes sense to want to take a picture of your children in public?  Of course.

Does it seem reasonable that it will take one or two seconds to take each picture?  Absolutely.

Does it seem obvious that a toddler can dart away, silently in one or two seconds and blend into a crowd?  Not necessarily.

I had been naive and underestimated his stealth and speed, and overestimated my ability to monitor his every move.   I was frustrated by my inability to pick him out in a crowd.

Why didn’t I dress him in bright orange? I lamented out loud.

In my own defense, the area around the pre-historic aquatic display  was not especially crowded.  However, the adjacent gallery had a rare diamond on loan from another museum, and the crowds were 5 deep around the gems display.

In our gallery, there were only a few families moving in small groups, and I still couldn’t see him.  A torturous 10 minutes, passed while I was consumed with self-recrimination, and worry.  Not the optimal mental state to be useful in a big search for a small child.

I was baffled about how he could have moved away from the area so rapidly, unless someone had moved him, a terrifying thought.

Twelve long excruciating minutes later, my daughter found him in the original gallery not too far from the megalodon shark jaws.    He had managed to hide so successfully by joining up with another family as they moved from display to display.  He blended in so well that I had undoubtedly looked right past him multiple times in my frantic state of mind.  The family probably didn’t notice him because they were focused on looking at the exhibits, and not on counting the number of heads in their posse.

“It’s ok mom, I was with those other people,”  he calmly explained as I pressed him to me, in absolute wonder that he had magically re-appearred as suddenly as he had disappeared.

He had felt safe. He had not sensed any danger.  He didn’t think he was lost;  he had just continued on doing what we had come to the museum to do.    He had zero self-awareness that hundreds of people were searching for him.  His boundless energy pushed him to circulate and explore.  He was a typical toddler.


1.  Observations

Since then I have personally observed parents taking pictures of children in public places like parks, museums, sporting events.  They are focused, like I was, on the viewfinder, and completely oblivious to the surrounding action, at least for a few moments.  But that is all it takes for situational awareness to drop.   Notice parents taking pictures.  Is their attention diverted from their toddlers?  Are the toddlers fastened in a stroller, backpack or being held by the hand, or monitored by another adult?  Notice the gaps in situational awareness.

2.  Protocols

A) At least two adults on a trip to watch multiple children.

B)  Consider hiring a babysitter for crowded events or venues like family reunions and excursions.    It is fatiguing to spend hours monitoring a child alone in public surroundings.    Young children need to be fastened in a stroller or backpack or held in the arms or by the hand in situations when attention is diverted as at the grocery store.

C)  If at a museum or other venue, seek help from the venue staff if the child can’t be found in the first minute.  Don’t wait for minutes to pass without recruiting help to search.

D) If the parent is sick or exhausted, or emotionally distraught consider rescheduling the outing so that enough attention bandwidth can be used for supervision.  Or consider leaving toddlers at home.

E) Pause before bringing a camera to the eye. Take one or two seconds to scan the environment to look for energy sources, ie. moving objects like balls, people who will intersect your group, and unsecured toddlers.