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A Manatee County child's injury raises the specter of dangerous playgrounds.
By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 13, 2007
[Daniel Wallace | Times]
The small park maintained by the Palmetto Point Civic Association isn't particularly large or famous, just a gathering spot for local kids.
But after a swing set collapsed Sunday afternoon and left a 2-year-old girl with severe brain damage, the Manatee County park has become the focus of new concerns about the safety of private playgrounds that are open to the public.
Unlike 17 other states, Florida does not require regular safety inspections of private playgrounds to make sure they meet standards set by national organizations.
That means hundreds of local playgrounds run by neighborhood associations, churches and even day cares are not required to have certified inspections proving they are safe for kids, said Scott Burton, a licensed playground safety expert and the president of the St. Petersburg company Safety Play.
"We need to do more because you're talking about the safety of kids," Burton said. "There shouldn't be any reason why they can't be safe."
The lack of oversight persists even though playground accidents are common. The National Recreation and Park Association estimates there are 205,850 park-related injuries every year, and about 15 children die each year because of playground incidents.
Lexi Antorino, a rambunctious 2-year-old, was critically injured Sunday afternoon when a swing set collapsed on her, causing a pole to fall on her head while she was in a baby-harnessed swing seat. The force of the blow broke a bone in her neck, cracked her skull and sent shards of bone into her brain.
Lexi remains in critical condition at All Children's Hospital, according to her father Nicholas Antorino. He said a test found that blood was flowing through the brain, but that Lexi's condition had not improved and that her kidneys were failing.
"Right now, we're just focused on our daughter," he said.
Dave Bristow, a spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, said an investigation continues though charges appear unlikely. Bristow said that maintenance workers had pushed the swing set to the ground in late November to make room for a truck they brought in so they could trim trees. A few days later, a worker put the swing set back up.
Investigators are reviewing security camera footage of the park to see if they can learn more, Bristow said.
"We're not sure exactly why it collapsed," Bristow said. "We don't think there's anything sinister to it. Obviously, the person who did it thought they had done it right."
The Palmetto Point Civic Association did not respond to requests for comments.
Various government agencies keep track of public playgrounds and parks. Pinellas County, for example, does regular inspections on its playgrounds and follows a strict replacement schedule for parts.
Unregulated in Florida
It is unclear how many private playgrounds exist locally or nationally, officals said. Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties neither track nor monitor private playgrounds open to the public. For parents, that means having to guess whether parks are safe.
Antorino says he isn't blaming anyone for the collapse that injured his daughter.
"It was an accident," he said. "It wasn't meant to happen."
Burton, the playground safety expert, says he has inspected hundreds of playgrounds and found safety flaws in each one: a lack of padding under swings, for example, or equipment that was improperly assembled.
Inspections vary depending on who runs the playground. At Tampa Palms in Hillsborough County, officials said they take a three-pronged approach to keeping their playgrounds safe: They install age appropriate equipment, conduct monthly inspections and pay attention to details.
"Our inspections and maintenance are monthly," said Maggie Wilson, special consultant to Tampa Palms Community Development District. "But if Mom sees something, we do it immediately."
Other states have laws requiring private playgrounds meant for public use to comply with national safety standards established by organizations such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission and American Society for Testing and Materials.
Because Florida does not have such laws, those who own private parks face only the threat of civil penalties and litigation if anyone gets hurt or killed.
"There should be a state law on this," Burton said. "They help keep kids safe."
Times reporter Nicole Hutcheson and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report, which used information from the Bradenton Herald. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.
How to help
Anyone who wishes to make a contribution to the Antorino family may call (941) 705-1327.
Ways to be safe
Parents can help prevent playground accidents by taking some precautions.
- The surface under playground equipment should be soft enough and thick enough to cushion the impact of a child's fall.
- Guardrails and protective barriers should be in place for elevated surfaces, including platforms and ramps.
- Swings should be limited to two per bay and should be at least 2 feet apart and 30 inches away from the support frame.
- Be sure there are no spaces that could trap your child's head, arm or any other body parts.
- On moving equipment, like seesaws, make sure there are no pinch points that could crush a child's finger or hand.
- Look for broken equipment; wooden equipment should not be cracked or splintered; metal equipment should not be rusted.
- Check for objects, such as hooks or bolts, that stick out and could cut a child or entangle clothing.
- All hardware should be secure.
- Ask the maintenance workers or playground management to see inspection records.
[Last modified December 13, 2007, 00:41:12]