The death of 4-year-old Evan English is becoming the catalyst for saving other children’s lives.
Evan fell through a screened window at his family’s home on Aliamanu Military Reservation in Honolulu in 2011.
Now, at a time that nearly 15,000 children fall out of windows in the United States each year, the Defense Department is on the verge of setting new regulations for window construction that will reduce the risk of these accidents — toughening what is being called “Evan’s Law.”
The rule change, part of the pending, bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act of 2020, will require that all privatized military housing contain a screen guard or lock or stronger screens in all windows where the bottom sill is within 42 inches from the floor.
There are currently about 1.2 million children of active duty military personnel. More than a third of military families live in privatized base housing.
Young children are at particular risk for falling out of screen windows because they like to climb. And if they push on a screen window, it can easily push out of the frame. Their heads are heavier than the rest of their bodies so they have difficulty righting themselves when they start to topple over.
It is estimated that 15 to 20 children die each year when they fall out of windows and many more suffer serious injuries. About 80 children in Hawaii plunge out of windows each year, according to the Hawaii Department of Health.
All small children are at risk of such falls, not just those on military bases. In February, 21-month-old Aiden Carter Doi toppled to his death from a three-story apartment window in Waipio.
Child safety advocates say it has been difficult to convince state legislatures or government regulators to impose tougher window-construction rules because of entrenched opposition from industry officials.
Many people simply don’t understand the risks to children that are posed by flimsy, unsecured screens, they say.
But advocates say there are products that can make children safer and that awareness of the issue is growing. The federal rule change is establishing an important new precedent for housing organizations around the country, including public housing agencies and, they hope, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Evan’s death in Honolulu in 2011 attracted more than average attention for a window fall because Evan English was the son of a Navy commander, Jason Corbett English, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a rising star in the military.
Evan was just two weeks shy of his 5th birthday. He had recently moved with his family from Germany into privatized base housing on Aliamanu Military Reservation. He fell out of a screened window on the second floor of the family home and landed on concrete.
According to documents filed in the lawsuit over the boyʻs death, Evan and his 6-year-old brother had been eating Popsicles and playing in the front yard of their home when they got into a quarrel with a neighbor child. They ran upstairs and continued calling out to the other child when Evan pushed through the screen and fell.
Evan was rushed to the hospital but had suffered a serious brain injury and died within a few days.
In 2013, the family filed a lawsuit against the the Army, the owner of the property, Australia-based Landlease, and the company that made the windows, and reached a confidential settlement in the case in 2015.
The family’s tragedy drew attention in military circles around the country.
The child’s death also lingered in the minds of the attorneys and expert witnesses who had provided testimony in the lawsuit in Hawaii. At the instigation of the attorney who represented the English family in the lawsuit, Wayne Parsons, they began looking for ways to collaborate with others around the nation who were concerned about child window deaths.
“We’re doing this on behalf of Evan, so that Evan’s death was not in vain,” Parsons said in an interview. “The death of a 5-year-old is the worst possible thing.”
They joined forces with the group led by Graham that had formed in the wake of a similar fall by a young girl there. Together they are working to change state and federal laws and international building codes to require stronger window protection.
Success Has Been Slow To Come
One big hurdle has been finding a product that solved the problem. Locks and wedges are widely available for sale but are easy for adults who don’t understand the danger to disable. The product also had to allow for easy escape in case of fire.
Graham located a company in Iowa that designed a new product — a stronger, sturdier screen that permits easy air flow, does not require bars but is hard to break and is not easily dismantled. He found that the new screen saved lives and also money because it reduced maintenance costs.
He said the stronger product costs about $10 more per screen than an average screen.
The Minnesota group succeeded in getting a state law passed in that state that improved window safety but it was limited to windows where the sills were less than 24 inches from the ground.
Graham said he was told that not enough children die in window falls each year to make it worthwhile to install stronger screens on more windows.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee was sympathetic from the beginning and she and her staff became supporters of the rule change now under consideration in the defense bill.
“We all remember the heartbreaking loss of Evan English in 2011, whose death may have been prevented with the appropriate safety equipment on windows in military housing,” Hirono said in an emailed statement.
The measure has bipartisan support, including from a number of Republicans, most notably Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio. An earlier version of the law that passed in 2017 covered windows with sills up to 24 inches, a small fraction of the windows on the market.
The NDAA, however, is currently in limbo with Democrats and Republicans fighting over President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, which would be funded with Defense Department dollars.
The Honolulu and Minneapolis groups have also taken heart from the subsequent actions of Lendlease, which has moved forward voluntarily to introduce and retrofit safety windows in the windows of its housing here and elsewhere in the country.
“They should get tremendous credit,” Parsons said. “A company doing the right thing.”
Lendlease did not return a request for comment for this story.
Brian Houlihan, president of Lansing Housing Products in Lansing, Iowa, which manufactures the stronger screens, said that Lendlease has bought thousands of them from his firm and are installing them in Hawaii and around the country.
“They are doing it at bases across the U.S.,” Houlihan said. “They’ve been very proactive at dealing with issues with children falling out of windows.”
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at email@example.com.