Should we fence all rivers to protect toddlers from slack parents?

The Dominion Post devotes half this morning’s front page to the bleatings of a drowned toddler’s uncle that the council should have fenced the river in which his 2 year old nephew drowned.

A family hit by a drowning tragedy had repeatedly pleaded with the council to build a fence where a toddler died.

Sukhraj Singh, 2, died and his cousin Archilles Kaui, 3, remains in hospital in a critical condition after the pair wandered into Gisborne’s Taruheru River on Thursday.

“I’ve been asking myself all night, would this have happened if the fence was put up in our neighbourhood? And the answer is no. Because those toddlers would not have been able to get past the fence”, Sukhraj’s uncle Hemi Jahnke said.

And why were the toddlers able to get anywhere near the river? The Dom finally reveals all in paragraph 10:

Before the tragedy, Archilles’ mother, Diana McIntyre, had been visiting Sukhraj’s mother, Jamie Taewa, at her home in Atkinson St. It was thought about 10 to 15 minutes passed before the women noticed the two toddlers had wandered off.

Well sorry, but any mother who lets a toddler out of her sight for 10 or 15 minutes near a river has no one to blame but herself if the child drowns.

That’s a hard thing to write at this sad time, especially as the poor mother may well have arrived at the same conclusion and does not necessarily share the uncle’s view.

But for the uncle to blame the council (ie the rest of us) is outrageously unfair.

Members of the family were part of community group Kia Kaha Mangapapa, a charitable trust started to try to make a positive difference in the area. The idea of a fence at the reserve was brought up at several hui called with Gisborne District Council last year. Archilles’ parents, Ms McLean and Frank Kaui, attended one of the meetings.

Mr Jahnke said the council had agreed to put up the fence.

“They did have a plan for the fence but because the fence was going to cost too much it started getting smaller and smaller. Eventually it turned into just a fence around the culvert.”

He was angry with the council.

“How many lives have been lost in river accidents because the council says they haven’t got enough money?

“And them listening now is not going to bring back Sukhraj. It’s not going to bring back a baby boy. But someone needs to be held accountable.”

Damn right. And I think most of us have a fair idea who.

Gisborne District Council acting chief executive Nedine Thatcher-Swann said it was “inconclusive” whether fencing the reserve would have made a difference at this stage.

Fencing every waterway into which a poorly supervised toddler could wander would certainly make a huge difference to the amount of public money available for other services. Or to Gisborne residents’ rates bills.

In my view the Council did exactly the right thing in refusing to assume the role of parents.

“Around the country and the world it is very unusual to find our natural environments – rivers, lakes or ponds – fenced.”

And so it should be. Do we really want to turn our country into an unsightly baby-prison, just so we can protect our toddlers from slack parents?

I grew up in a house near the Waiwhetu Stream in Fairfield, Lower Hutt. The Stream got a bad press for being badly polluted down the industrial end, but the suburban reaches were and are a delightfully meandering waterway that greatly enhances the ambience of the area.

It remains unfenced, despite being bounded by houses for miles, and is dotted with reserves, also unfenced.

Presumably, parents who choose to live there, like mine did, also take responsibility for watching their children.

I hope the Dominion Post will reflect on the message their story sends, and provide some balance in the coming days.

Published in: on November 5, 2011 at 10:50 am  Comments (26)  
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