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Accidental child deaths up in lockdown as parents juggle work and care

“He turned his back on [Hunter] for a moment and he was gone. He checked the dam first but there’s a tiny bit of the dam hidden by a tree. So he went down to the road, then came back and saw the dam from a different angle and that’s where he found Hunter,” she said.

Ash Napolitano is encouraging parents to focus on finding safe places for kids to play.

Ash Napolitano is encouraging parents to focus on finding safe places for kids to play.Credit:Eddie Jim

“We’ve gone from a crazy loud household to quietness. Life has just gone on for everyone around us but we’re just stuck in this horrible nightmare.”

Ms Napolitano thinks “every day” about how his death would have been avoided if Hunter had been in supervised childcare.

“Don’t think this will never happen to you,” she said to other parents. “Make sure you have safe places for your kids to play. While we’re all working from home and trying to do home schooling, maintaining the home and buy groceries, [children’s safety] can sometimes slip people’s minds. We’re all human at the end of the day.”

Kidsafe Victoria chief executive Melanie Courtney said most of the 29 accidental fatalities that occurred in 2020 were in and around homes. She said eight deaths were recorded in a six-week period from mid-July to the end of August during last year’s lockdown.

“When you’re only allowed out two hours a day, that’s much more time indoors when kids would otherwise have been in supervised childcare or schools,” she said. “Naturally, when people spend more time at home, it’s likely more incidents will occur.

“Schools are highly regulated. It’s their sole job to look after kids, whereas now you have families at home with multiple priorities and it’s really challenging for them … This isn’t about blame.”

Dr Warwick Teague, trauma director at the Royal Children’s Hospital, said an “enormous” increase in home-based injury was inevitable as more time was spent at home unless the community was educated minimising home hazards.

“These are massive increases,” he said. “COVID is impacting … [and] this is a huge drain on an already pretty oversubscribed system.”

In the three years before 2020, there was an average of 320 severe accidental injury admissions to the RCH for the whole year compared with 310 in the mostly locked-down period of 2020.

Both Dr Teague and Ms Courtney understand the necessity of lockdowns but say not enough has been done to ameliorate the risks associated with spending more time at home.

Dr Teague said admissions for in-home injuries dropped closer to normal levels as Victoria came out of lockdown but accidents caused by risk-taking behaviour were still unusually high this year.

There were more than 50 severe trauma injuries from biking in the second six months of last year and the first half of this year, compared with an average of 35 in previous six-month intervals. There was an 80 per cent rise in these types of injuries in the period of stay-at-home orders last year.

Dr Teague said the focus on preventing COVID-19 infection had the effect of “consuming” people’s understanding of other risky behaviours. He said some families trying to find enjoyment during lockdowns were engaging in dangerous activities like putting accelerants onto backyard fires.

He said the pandemic had disrupted our ability to supervise children and strike the balance between safety and encouraging kids to thrive by making the most of the activities they were permitted to undertake in the absence of schooling and organised sport.

“We’ve not seen families putting accelerant onto flames before. The consequences were devastating. This used to be the behaviour of younger, thrill-seeking males but we’re seeing a shift towards parents with kids doing it,” he said.

“For example, the COVID phenomenon of people taking up new skills like riding; unless we increase awareness of helmet and bike path use, we suddenly have a whole lot of inexperienced people riding bicycles.”

Visit Kidsafe Victoria’s “Nothing is Everything” campaign website for tips on how to prevent injuries to your child.

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