Literally, Lifesaving

Smiling children sit by the edge of a swimming pool


Every parent’s worst nightmare is the loss of a child. But thanks to the decades-long efforts of USD’s Children’s Advocacy Institute (CAI), both the state of California and the nation as a whole have seen the rate of childhood drowning drop substantially.

Passed in 2017, the California Pool Safety Act strengthened legislation that was created and passed in 1996, in large part due to the efforts of CAI.

“While the swimming pool bill is 23 years old, that is kind of the point of the work that we do,” explains CAI Executive Director Robert Fellmeth. “You enact a bill and the key is what it does over time. If it’s not working, try a different approach. If it works very well, replicate it elsewhere. We knew these provisions were working in Australia prior to our formulation of the California bill.”

Fellmeth notes that many of the protective elements in the law that CAI sponsored in 1997 and helped to refine further in 2017 have been adopted in other states. In particular, he thanks the Drowning Prevention, Foundation and the American Academy of Pediatrics for their work to disseminate it.

The bill’s passage is “a testament to the power of the CAI’s tenacity,” says Program Director of the California Coalition for Children’s Safety and Health Steve Barrow. As CAI’s former senior policy advocate, he worked tirelessly to get this important legislation passed.

“The original 1996 Pool Safety Act was strongly opposed by California’s pool and spa industry community, whereas SB 442, which is national landmark legislation, was actively supported by that same community. The revised legislation adds a second barrier requirement and captures more existing pools that are subject to the pool safety act law,” he adds.

Changing the law has required patience and collaboration over the years. As Julie Fellmeth, the former administrative director for USD’s Center for Public Interest Law, notes, “This bill brought together the insurance industry, the swimming pool industry and trial lawyers — rare bedfellows.” 

According to a recently released study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning rates for children age 14 and younger are now about a third of what they were in the early 1980s in the U.S., and have dropped even more in California. That decline is specifically attributed to the CAI model statue of 1996.

While the work that CAI does to protect the rights of children has been unceasing over the years, Robert Fellmeth notes that the institute is also able to respond to national events that are in the news today, ranging from defending the rights of foster children to legal counsel to working to “stop the predations of private for-profit schools.”

“We are very grateful that USD has embraced changemaking,” he says. “We have been doing that for 40 years and treasure its escalation at the university.” — Julene Snyder

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