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Toddlers drowning at daycare pool sparks warning from safety advocates

After two toddlers died and a third was rescued from a home daycare swimming pool in California last week, water safety and drowning prevention advocates said the “tragic” and “preventable” incident highlights several red flags for parents and caregivers.

The San Jose Police Department (SJPD) is investigating what led to the October 2 drowning deaths of 18-month-old Payton Alexandria Cobb, of Hollister, and Lillian Hanan, 1, of San Jose. A third child who was pulled from the pool was hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries, according to SJPD. The incident prompted the California Department of Social Services (DSS) to issue a temporary license suspension order to Happy Happy Daycare, located on Fleetwood Drive in San Jose, on Thursday, according to local media. The owners are also facing $11,000 in fines, local station KTVU reports.

SJPD said during a news conference last week that no charges had been filed against the daycare owners at the time but the investigation was ongoing.

Newsweek reached out via email on Sunday to SJPD for comment and update on the case.

Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1-4, according to statistics from the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), and advocates say the number of annual deaths is “heading in the wrong direction.”

“We mostly think that it’s gun accidents or car accidents or sleep incidents, but for those 1 to 4-year-olds, the leading cause of death is drowning,” NDPA Executive Director Adam Katchmarchi told Newsweek in a phone interview on Sunday. “Unfortunately, our drowning rates over the last couple of years since COVID have been heading in the wrong direction.”

Exacerbating the problem is that people are uninformed when it comes to water safety and are often unaware that drowning is quick and quiet, Katchmarchi said.

Two boys dive into a swimming pool. Water safety advocates gave drowning prevention tips to Newsweek after three toddlers fell into a daycare pool and drowned, resulting in two dying.
Thomas Lohnes/Getty

“The public just doesn’t have a good understanding of what drowning is,” Katchmarchi said. “We’re so used to the Hollywood or TV version of drowning, which is not the most accurate portrayal of a true drowning victim. It’s a fast, 20 to 60-second battle, and it’s often silent. With children there isn’t going to be that yelling, calling for help.”

Happy Happy Daycare, where the three young children drowned on October 2, obtained its license in early 2021 and is managed by Nina Fathizadeh and Shahin Shenas, according to online DSS records. The daycare has been cited six times, the records show, with state investigators finding the daycare was caring for too many infants at one time, not checking on infants enough during naps, and allowing an adult employee to work without the proper criminal record clearance, among other concerns.

It was unclear at the time of publication how many adults and children were at the daycare when the drownings happened.

The backyard pool caused pre-licensing issues for the daycare, with state inspectors identifying concerns over the fencing surrounding the pool deck and the pool’s access and visibility. The owners had to correct the issues to “ensure there is no immediate risk to the health and safety of the children in care.”

However, state inspectors noted that the pool area at Happy Happy Daycare was found to be “fully fenced” and the fence was at least five feet tall with a gate that “self-closes and has a self-latching device,” according to a DSS facility evaluation report from January 2023.

It was unclear at the time of publication how the children managed to get in the water last week.

Newsweek reached out to Happy Happy Daycare for comment via the caregiver’s website and Facebook page.

Doug Forbes, who founded the Los Angeles-based Meow Meow Foundation in memory of his late daughter Roxie who drowned at a summer camp at the age of 6, urged state officials to mandate additional safety measures for childcare facilities that have water access.

Forbes told Newsweek in a phone interview on Sunday that he’s calling for enhanced water safety measures, including video surveillance, alarms, water safety education, and emergency response plans, can help curb “preventable” drownings. It was unclear what measures, other than the fence noted in the DSS report, Happy Happy Daycare utilized at the time of the incident.

“San Jose incident is just beyond tragic,” Forbes said. “You never think that such an incident like San Jose can happen to you or your child until it does. I am witness to that I’m a survivor of it. And it doesn’t just end with that triple drowning. The way I always put it is it takes a village to help and protect a child and it takes a village to harm one. And in this case, we can’t specifically point our finger at the daycare operators alone. We need to look at the system that surrounds that daycare operation.”

Forbes said most important factor in drowning prevention is for adults to pay attention to children “every single minute” anytime there’s water nearby, the 59-year-old child safety advocate said, noting that roughly 80 percent of child drownings occur with an adult present.

He said in addition to keeping a close eye on children, “not phones,” parents and caregivers need to ensure there are two barriers preventing access to a water source.

“Unfortunately, systemic failures continue to facilitate these preventable drownings and deaths of our most precious cargo,” Forbes said to Newsweek. “So as a parent, especially for a daycare operation or a camp, you can never ask enough questions or demand enough documentation or proof. Ask as many questions as you need to until you feel comfortable because you don’t want to live like me and have regrets. I didn’t ask enough questions. I didn’t do enough due diligence.”

Katchmarchi warns that people need to understand that “water is inherently dangerous.”

“I would recommend parents consider choosing daycares that don’t have pools,” he told Newsweek. “Even though we want kids to become water competent and we want them to have these experiences in water, we have to consider the risk.”

He said in the San Jose case, the tools that should have helped deter drownings failed. Katchmarchi said “somehow” the children managed to bypass the pool fence and gate, coupled with a “brief lapse of supervision,” resulted in the “tragic” ordeal.

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