WHEN A CHILD dies an avoidable death, it’s not entirely surprising that the grieving family looks for someone to blame.
In the case of toddler Sukhraj Singh, who drowned in the Taruheru River at Gisborne last week, blame has fallen on Gisborne District Council for not fencing off the river.
Only the flint-hearted could not feel sorry for the family. I can't think of any event more heartbreaking than the death of a child. But the primary cause of this terrible accident, if news reports are accurate, is that the mothers of Sukhraj and his cousin Achilles Kaui – who also nearly drowned – didn’t notice that they had wandered off.
According to the Dominion Post’s account, 10 or 15 minutes passed before the two women realised the little boys were gone – more than enough time for a child to get into fatal trouble.
It’s now almost a kneejerk reaction to blame some imagined bureaucratic failing whenever awful accidents happen. A similar thing happened in 2009 when Aisling Symes fell into a manhole in Henderson.
But the primary responsibility for children’s safety will always rest with parents. Far more children die because their parents were distracted at a crucial moment than because councils didn’t put up fences or follow up reports of manhole covers coming loose.
Public authorities can never identify, still less eliminate, every potential hazard, and it’s not their function to do so. Active, inquisitive children will always find ways to put themselves at risk; that’s why their parents need to watch them at all times.
When there’s water nearby, the need for vigilance multiplies.
In the same week that Sukhraj died, an inquest was held into the drowning of a two-year-old girl at Waiwera Thermal Pools north of Auckland. The coroner was told that Nylah Vau wandered away from the kiddies’ pool while her parents were otherwise occupied.
The Vau family will now have a lifetime in which to mourn the tragic consequences of inadequate supervision. Such incidents are far too common.
If events follow the usual course in Gisborne, the district council will feel compelled to conduct an inquiry into the death of Sukhraj Singh and will very likely announce some time later that action has been taken to prevent a recurrence.
The trouble with such outcomes is that they perpetuate the dishonest pretence that public officials can eliminate risk – and even more lethally, they encourage the mindset that it is the responsibility of public officials, rather than parents, to ensure that tragedies don’t happen.