After 2010 Smithville Lake tragedy, grandparents hope for 'Hannah's Law' passage

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nearly a decade after a Smithville Lake tragedy, a proposed bill pre-filed for the Missouri General Assembly aims to help prevent childhood drowning deaths.

State Sen. Lauren Arthur (D-North Kansas City) pre-filed Senate Bill 119, also known as “Hannah’s Law”, on Dec. 1.

The bill comes eight years after seven-year-old Hannah Gerlt drowned at Smithville Lake.

Back in 2010, Hannah was swimming with a family friend when tragedy struck.

“She was trying to cross from the camping site to the swim beach,” said Chris Gerlt, Hannah’s grandfather. “They should have never had her in the water without a life jacket.”

Years later, seeing pictures of Hannah brings back painful memories for her grandparents.

The young girl’s room at their home remains the same from the day she died, with pictures of Hannah Montana and school projects still adorning her wall.

In the living room, the Gerlts have a special ornament with Hannah’s name on it on their Christmas tree.

“Nobody met Hannah that didn’t fall in love with her,” said her grandfather. “There were over 300 people that attended her funeral. She touched a lot of lives.”

Following Hannah’s tragic death in the water, her grandparents wanted to see change in Missouri.

A proposal to require children to wear life jackets when swimming led to the two of them reaching out to state leaders.

“We’ve met with each and every one of them and talked to them,” said grandmother Annetta Gerlt. “We’ve been to Jefferson City twice.”

Change eventually came in the form of “Hannah’s Law.”

According to the bill pre-filed for next year’s legislative session, children 12 years old and younger would be required to wear a life jacket when swimming in public waters more than three feet deep.

The requirement would apply to places like public lakes and city-owned pools. 

Children would be exempt from the requirement if a lifeguard is present while private pools and other privately-owned bodies of water would not be covered by the bill.

Currently, children under seven years old are required to wear a life jacket only when on a “watercraft” in Missouri. 

Arthur said she has spoken with the Gerlt family and knows the proposed bill could have a big impact in the state.

“I first learned about the issue when Chris reached out,” she said. “We’re trying to keep kids safe and no family should suffer the loss of a child.”

In recent years, “Hannah’s Law” has gotten lost in the legislative shuffle multiple times in Missouri.

Moving forward, Arthur hoped leaders could see the importance of passing the bill.

“It’s common sense. It’s non-controversial," she said. “I’ve been surprised that it hasn't gotten very far in the process.”

With the bill now pre-filed for the 2019 session, Hannah’s grandparents hope it can help prevent another similar tragedy from happening again.

“Our biggest hope is to get this passed to where no one will ever have to go through what we have gone through,” Chris said. “Hannah could have made a big change in this world. Now the only change that she might make is if we get this law passed.”

If the proposed bill passes, any person looking after a child found in violation of “Hannah’s Law” could be found guilty of a Class C misdemeanor.

The 2019 Missouri General Assembly convenes on Jan. 9. 

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