By: Angie Drake
Cohen Kuester was playing upstairs with his older brother, Guthrie, when he heard a garbage truck on the street outside…
Cohen loved trucks. With the ingenuity of an almost 2-year-old, he picked up a large boombox, placed it under the second-story window, climbed on top, and looked outside. Cohen couldn’t see the garbage truck, so he pushed against window screen to get a better look. Guthrie yelled to his mother when he realized his brother had fallen through the window to the ground below. Cohen’s mom, Missy Kuester, was downstairs sipping her first cup of coffee while making a mental to-do list when she heard Guthrie scream. Topping the list was a note to open the upstairs windows to air out the house. The Kuesters were in the process of selling their home for an upcoming move with the Air Force. Missy didn’t know that her husband had already tried to help by opening the windows.
KIDS AT RISK
Every year, an estimated 3,300 children, ages 5 and under, are injured from falls out of windows. Approximately eight children in this age group will die from these types of accidents each year. Very few families realize this danger exists in their own homes, and most have never thought about using the safety measures that prevent these types of potentially fatal falls. Despite falling head first, Cohen survived his fall because he landed in bushes planted directly beneath the window. His parents endured a frantic ambulance ride and a terrifying helicopter life flight to get to the emergency room. They worried for hours waiting to find out how badly Cohen was hurt. The fall meant weeks wondering if Cohen’s injuries might lead to neurological damage but each passing month showed that he was going to be OK. Ten years later, Cohen is an active 11-year-old who plays football, sings in the choir, and loves school. But every year around May, Missy and her husband, Chris, think a lot about that long day and ask what they should have done differently.
But Another Military Family’s Story Didn’t Have This Happy Ending…
In 2011, Jason and Ami English faced the exact same question. Their son, Evan, was two months shy of turning 5 years old when he fell from a second-story window in their Army housing in Hawaii. Ami had sent her two sons to play in their upstairs bedroom. To this day, no one understands how Evan managed to reach the window and open it himself.
Ami was walking upstairs to check on her boys when her older son, Jason Jr., cried out that Evan had fallen out of the window. Ami ran outside and found Evan on their concrete driveway. “I prayed, I yelled, we called 911, 10 minutes to get to us, I panicked. I tried to remain calm for my son but I knew it was bad because he was unconscious. We were able to see obvious signs of something wrong because of knots on his head.” Jason pleaded, “Fix him, mommy. Fix him.” Despite expert emergency medical care, Evan died from his injuries.
A FORGOTTEN PROBLEM
For decades, public health officials across the United States encouraged communities to protect their youngest children from falls through simple preventative measures, like window guards and balcony railings. Back in the 1970s, studies showed that adding guard rails to windows in multi-story dwellings cut dangerous falls of young children by 50 percent. Those same guard rails reduced deaths attributed to falls by 35 percent. Over the years, these safety measures disappeared from the public’s radar. During the investigation into Evan’s death, the English family learned that the Department of Defense once provided protective devices on second-story windows in military base housing.
Over the past two decades, as each branch of service entered into contracts with private developers at military bases across the United States, this provision was dropped from contracts again and again. Armed with the knowledge of what this lapse meant for families like his, Jason, Evan’s dad, felt called by God to turn the tragedy into advocating for change. He knew that Evan’s story could make a difference. The family researched equipment, read laws, and started to share their story in town hall meetings and on-post community education events.
PASSING EVAN’S LAW
About a year ago, Congressman Michael Turner of Ohio’s 10th District heard Evan’s story. He immediately saw how legislation could prevent another accident like Evan’s. His words, “Let’s do it, Jason!” gave the English family hope. In a few short months, Evan’s Law was drafted, proposed, and amended to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2018. The NDAA was recently signed by President Trump but, as of the writing of this article, still awaits funding.
Windows in military base housing that are within 42 inches of the floor as measured indoors and 72 inches or more above the ground as measured outdoors will be required to have a safety device that prevents unintentional falls and is in compliance with the International Building Code (IBC) standards. The secretary of each branch of the military is required to have a plan for retrofitting existing military family housing units to meet these requirements within 180 days after the law is enacted. That plan should include feasibility and cost-effectiveness.
While Evan’s Law will help thousands of military families keep their children safe, there are thousands more who live in off-base housing. Military families lock safety gates across stairways, place covers over electrical outlets, and even drill through bookshelves to fasten them to walls, but often don’t consider adding safety features to their second story windows. Even after Cohen’s fall, the Kuester family never added a window lock or safety bars to other homes. Instead, they chose to never open an upstairs window until their boys were much older.
A WAKE-UP CALL
When Ami English tells families that they should take precautions, many reply that it is just too expensive. Her response is frank, “You know what’s expensive? A coffin.” When Ami talks about Evan, her voice rings with love for her son. She laughs a little when she remembers that he loved popsicles and his older brother. Evan’s death has taught Ami to cherish every moment, to worry less about getting the dishes done, and to spend more time with her children. She will always remember Evan “forever young” like his favorite storybook character, Peter Pan. While Evan’s Law will never bring Evan back, the English family hopes it will keep another military kid safe while they play in their own home.
“Evan’s Law was born out of tragedy to save the lives of others. Commander English’s commitment to solving this safety issue for military families is the reason we were able to get this legislation to the president’s desk. Our service members deserve to have housing that is safe for their children to live in. I thank the English family for their passion and bringing this issue to my attention.”
– Chairman Mike Turner of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces