Judi Conaghan assumed she’d done everything possible to keep her five children safe. She’d covered the electric outlets, installed cabinet latches, and put all household chemicals out of reach. It’s a health thing, after all. But there was one hazard the Wilmette, Illinois, math teacher had overlooked: window screens.
On a warm October day last year, her two-year-old son, Brian, was happily bouncing on the bed next to an open window when he tripped and fell against the window screen. The weight of his body knocked the screen out of the window, and the little boy tumbled to a concrete driveway 15 feet below. “I ran out the front door, expecting the worst,” says the 36-year-old mom.
To Conaghan’s enormous relief, her toddler was conscious when she found him. But he was crying hard–and covered with blood. Doctors at Children’s Memorial Hospital, in Chicago, discovered that he’d suffered a broken leg as well as facial fractures. After a five-day hospital stay and two months in a leg cast, Brian made a full recovery. Conaghan, however, was horrified when she was told that the accident could have been avoided. “The doctor said window screens are designed to keep bugs out, not to keep kids in,” she says.
Conaghan did her homework and learned that every year about 4,700 kids are treated in emergency rooms for serious falls, many of them from open, unscreened windows. So she reamed up with Children’s Memorial Hospital to mount a statewide awareness campaign, dubbed Stop the Falls. The program advises parents to buy window guards with bars no more than four inches apart (or sash stops that prevent the window from being opened more than four inches) and to arrange furniture so that windows are less accessible to children. A similar program in Boston reportedly has reduced deaths and injuries from window falls by 83 percent.
Thanks in part to this mom’s advocacy, the Chicago City Council has come out in support of Stop the Falls. Earlier this year, Conaghan went to the next level, testifying at special hearings before state representatives. The goal she is steadily working toward: statewide window-safety legislation that would requite landlords to install safety guards in apartments where children live–as is already the law in New York City and some other places.
For Conaghan, all the work will be worth it if no other mother has to run out of the house, her heart pounding, after a child plummets from a window. “What happened to Brian,” she says, “can be prevented.”
Like parents everywhere, Rosanne Cash was horrified by the Columbine school massacre in 1999. “My first question was, How did these kids get guns?” says the 48-year-old country-and-western singer. “My 17-year-old daughter, Chelsea, spoke up and said it’s easy to get guns. She even knew kids who had them.” Even worse was what another of Cash’s daughters told her–that she’d been to a party where teenage boy brandished a gun in show off to his friends.
“I was shocked to think that my daughter could have been killed,” says Cash, who lives in New York City with her husband and five children. In 2000, Cash put her celebrity in the hands of Pax, a nonprofit organization that campaigns against gun violence. She’s given speeches to parents, students, and teachers, and has held a number of benefit performances.
Cash’s priority: Stop school shootings. Pax has a hotline (866-773-2587), so kids can anonymously report students who bring guns to school or who talk about plans to do so. “I want horror stories about kids shooting kids to be as rare as a comet hitting the earth,” she says.
When Tempe, Arizona, elementary school teacher Druann Letter asked a classroom of children what was the most important thing to remember about water safety, they said, “Wait 30 minutes after eating before you swim.”
“When I asked what they should do if a child falls into the water, kids as young as five said they’d jump in to save him, when that would put them at risk of drowning,” Letter says. “Yet 90 percent of them knew that if your clothes are on fire, you should stop, drop, and roll.”
There was a poignant urgency to her questions–two years earlier, the 34-year-old suffered a terrible loss: Her three-year-old son, Weston, drowned in the family’s backyard pool. Even though both parents were at home–Letter was in the den and her husband, Tom, a firefighter, was working in the yard–neither noticed any splash, shout, or struggle. “You don’t hear a child drown: They call it the silent death,” says Letter. “We don’t know what happened, except that we didn’t have a four-sided pool fence, and we weren’t watching him closely enough.”
Letter, who also has five-year-old twins, was determined to prevent other tragedies. After discovering that most young kids in her community knew little about water safety, she decided to get involved in her son’s memory. In 1999, she started Water Watchers, a drowning-prevention group (soon after, Phoenix Children’s Hospital jumped in). Her water-safety day gets bigger every year. In 2003 some 3,200 elementary students were bussed in for a day of activities at Glendale Community College, including a firefighter down show and tours of fire engines and ambulances. Letter speaks to kids year-round and has devised a water-safety curriculum for schools.
But nothing substitutes for an adult’s alertness. “Remember, children are drawn to water,” Letter says. “It’s up to parents to be responsible.”