Julie Lopiccolo thought she had taken all the necessary precautions when it came to water safety and her son, Jasper. But one day she got a phone call no mother should ever receive. Jasper drowned while under the care of his baby sitter who had, without permission, taken Jasper to her house, where there was an ungated pool. The toddler was left alone for only a few minutes before he was found face-down in the water. He was just 21 months old.
Out of their grief, the family established the Jasper Ray Foundation (jasperray.org), a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of child water safety and drowning prevention.
Three years later, Lopiccolo admits that it's still hard for her to wrap her brain around this tragedy.
"This was 100 percent preventable," she says. "Before this happened, it was easy to put the blinders on and look the other direction on this subject. You never think it will happen to you, until it does."
The motto of the foundation is, "It's Your Job to Keep Me Safe." Lopiccolo says. "(Drowning) can happen so fast. And it's silent. You can't hear their struggle in the water."
According to the Orange County Fire Authority, drowning is the leading cause of accidental injury and death in children under the age of 5. In 2016, there were 106 near-drowning and drowning incidents in Orange County, with 39 of them being fatal. In the 4 and younger category, there were 29 incidents, with three of those being fatal.
"Babies are enamored with water, but it only takes as little as 2 inches of it for them to drown," says Amy Frias, community educator at Children's Hospital of Orange County and Safe Kids Orange County coordinator. "It's a matter of being aware of your surroundings."
Frias acknowledges that layers of barriers are a key component to water safety, especially as babies transition into crawling and walking. For pool owners, this includes fencing with self-closing and self-latching gates, alarms on doors leading to outside yards, designated "water watchers" at parties and events and a commitment by parents and caregivers to be certified in CPR.
"The more layers you have in place, the more time you have," Frias says. "These incidents often occur not because of a lack of supervision, but because of a lapse in supervision."
Johnny Johnson, owner of Tustin-based Blue Buoy Swim School, has spent the last 50 years teaching children how to swim and actively spreads the message about drowning prevention. He agrees that while there is no one answer, having layers or multiple strategies in place, as well as being diligent, can reduce the risk.
"There's always risk around water," Johnson says. "You never know which step will save your child's life."
Johnson and his wife, Cindy, are the founders of Stop Drowning Now (stopdrowningnow.org), an organization that provides a pre-K through second grade water safety-awareness curriculum as well as an annual water safety challenge. Their comprehensive message to help families reduce drowning incidents is threefold: Recognize the risks associated with water, implement a "recipe" of strategies to reduce those risks, and manage those strategies responsibly.
"Where is the risk? It's not just pools, but any body of water: a spa, the ocean or even a bathtub," Johnson says. "Strategies to reduce the risks include layers of protection around pools and adult supervision, preferably at arm's length. And to manage our response, there needs to be an action plan that at least includes CPR certification."
For those who turn to swim lessons for their children, Johnson acknowledges the benefits for babies and toddlers, such as breath control, balance and comfort in the water, but stresses that swim lessons do not make a child "water safe."
"Parents need to take water safety on as their risk," Johnson says, "as if your kids are saying, 'If you can't see me, you can't save me.' "
Lopiccolo hopes her experience will help changes parents' attitudes and that they will be more active about drowning prevention.
"Drowning is preventable, and water can never be safe," says Lopiccolo. "It really can happen to anyone, so we need to keep the conversation going."