Contact 5 Special Report: Playground Dangers

Broken parts, missing equipment, exposed nails

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Broken metal, cracked plastic and exposed nails.

These are just a few of the problems the Contact 5 investigators discovered at area playgrounds.

Carl Abraham is a recreational safety consultant who has testified in hundreds of playground injury cases.

He says the most common playground peril is under your feet.

The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission and the American Society for Testing and Materials have standards for safe surfacing cover that include 12 inches of fresh mulch, pea gravel, sand, rubber mulch or wood chips. 

"If a child falls and the surface isn't right, a child can wind up with head injuries.  It's very serious.  It happens all the time," Abraham told the Contact 5 Investigators. 

"I'm like 'oh my God, oh my God,' and 'umm, I'm sorry,' " said Tara Saxon who knows all about head injuries on the playground.  Her seven-year-old son was hospitalized after, she says, he tripped on a concrete section of playground while in aftercare.  Saxon is now suing the daycare.

"It was shocking to me that this could actually happen," she said. "I was just devastated."

Three years later, her son John still struggles with memory loss, and according to his doctor, it may continue for the rest of his life.

"I'm just lucky he's alive," Saxon said.

John is one of an estimated 200,000 children nationwide, according to the CPSC, who, each year enter the playground and land in a hospital emergency room.

"There are no perfect playgrounds," Abraham said. "There are safe playgrounds where the risks are essentially small."

After visiting dozens of playgrounds in Palm Beach County and along the Treasure Coast, the Contact 5 Investigators invited Abraham to see what we found.

Click here to view inspection results and playground location in your area.

In Riviera Beach, not far from the newly restored Wells Recreation Center and newly designed municipal playground on Singer Island, is Monroe Heights Park.

"I can see right away there are problems here," said Abraham who pointed to the dirt surface as a top concern.

"This is like a rock, this is unacceptable," he said.

Also a safety concern, according to Abraham, a rocking dinosaur missing its handle and the park's only climbing apparatus was missing several steps.

"There's no defense to this," he said.  "If a child was playing on this and did fall, it's an excellent case against the municipality, without any question.  Either make it safe and bring back new equipment or remove everything."

The Contact 5 Investigators took Abraham's concerns straight to John Williams, Director of the Riviera Beach Parks & Recreation Department.

View inspection results and playground location on this interactive map.

"We try our best to make sure we have some of the best, some of the safest playgrounds in the county," said Williams who also indicated that city playgrounds are inspected every day. 

However, when the Contact 5 Investigators asked for the most recent inspection reports from Monroe Heights, we were provided 2009 records.  Williams said the city was still working on getting us more recent reports. 

As for the problems the Contact 5 Investigators found at Monroe Heights, Williams responded, "It will be taken care of."

Up the street at Cunningham Park, faded caution tape has not taken care of cracked plastic on the playground, rusted and broken parts and the hole in the middle of the slide.. 

When asked how long the city has known about conditions at Cunningham Park, Williams responded, "we've known about Cunningham Park for at least two years."

So why hasn't the city torn this playground down?

"If you go back there now, it has been removed," said Williams.  Days after the Contact 5 Investigators started asking questions about Cunningham Park, the playground was torn down.

Cunningham Park is scheduled to undergo a total renovation this year, according to the city's Parks & Recreation Director. Monroe Heights will, eventually, undergo a renovation.

"It's not like we've sat back for years and not done anything to parks.  It's just that we can't afford to do them all at one time," said Williams.

Time, it appears, has also stood still at Hand Park in Belle Glade.  That's where the Contact 5 Investigators found cracks in a slide, splintered plywood and holes in metal.  But, resting in the middle of the playground, surrounded by children running around, we found a charred log with a 10-inch nail sticking out of it.

Turns out the nail was just one of hundreds of nails sticking out of a burnt canopy hut nearby.

Contact 5 Investigator Katie LaGrone got on the phone with the city that day.

"I want to bring this to somebody's attention right now before another day goes by," she said.

Ten days later the hut and the exposed nails were still at the park.

"We try to keep up on everything but sometimes the little things get by, said city commissioner Larry Underwood who met with us along with Belle Glade's Parks and Recreation Director.

"That was an act of

vandalism that just happened a few days ago," said Underwood.  However, according to the incident report, the canopy went up in flames in March.

Contact 5:  "Commissioner why not tear this thing down?"

"I'll make you a promise, the next time you come out and see this, you won't know this park," said commissioner Underwood.

Days after our interview in Belle Glade, the charred canopy hut was torn down.  Portions of the playground at Hand Park were also shut down until safety concerns are addressed.

According to city leaders, Belle Glade was recently awarded a $200,000 grant that will be used to renovate Hand Park with two new playgrounds, new bathrooms and new basketball courts.

Investigative Producer Lynn Walsh contributed to this story.

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