Playground accidents happen, just ask any parent. A scraped elbow, a scraped knee, but on September 9, 19-month-old Faith Phillips died from injuries she sustained just a few days before at a licensed child care center in Wasilla, Alaska.
What happened? A parent’s worst nightmare. The toddler’s head became stuck in a hole in some playground equipment and she strangled to death. The staff of the center rushed around to find someone on staff who knew CPR, but their efforts were not in time. An investigation is ongoing, but parents wanted to know why all staff did not know CPR, how many staff were on the playground at the time and whether they were supervising the children or talking as if “on break” among themselves.
The Deputy Commissioner for Family, Community, and Integrated Services within the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said an investigation of the center had previously been conducted based on complaints from parents about a lack of supervision. In June of 2011, the state found enough evidence to support the complaints related to the supervision of children and fined the center. A correction plan was required but until the current investigation is complete, it is unclear what set of circumstances led to the tragedy. The center is currently closed until further notice.
The Alaska DHSS (in addition to the area DHSS office) and the Wasilla Police Department are investigating the incident. Gene Belden, Chief of the WPD, said that the death was accidental. State law provides for criminal charges in cases of accidents if it’s proven there was negligence. Belden said, “It’s a sad thing to have all this interest after something happens instead of prior to it.”
In Alaska, like in many other states, state law requires only one staff person on the premises to be certified in CPR. We think that’s not enough. All staff working with children should know and be able to conduct CPR in an emergency. There should be no rushing around to find someone who can perform CPR. The child care center in Wasilla had previously been cited for its poor supervisory practices. The center had been fined. The center was supposed to implement an improvement plan requiring more effective supervisory practices. Many states fine programs $200 or $1,000 for certain violations. What dollar amount is enough to ensure that child care providers actually change their behavior for the long-term – not just in the weeks after being cited, but forever? We don’t know. We have no studies on that. But, intuitively, the larger the fine, the less likely providers would risk the offense. How much is a child’s life worth?
At a minimum, the tragic death of Faith Phillips is a wake-up call for training. Providers need to know CPR and they need to engage in effective supervisory practices. How did Faith stick her head in the hole in the playground equipment? How long did she strangle in the equipment before being discovered? How many adults were on the playground? Where were they and what were they doing? No doubt the investigation will review these questions.
In the meantime, if we are to prevent accidents like the tragic incident with Faith, we need to call on policymakers to require appropriate training. Urge your Members of Congress today to require minimum training that includes CPR as part of child care reauthorization legislation.