LAKE ASBURY, Fla. – A Clay County mother, who's also a first responder, lived a real-life nightmare after her toddler escaped from her Lake Asbury home in the middle of the night.
It happened last February, and little did Candice Buckner know her 23-month old son knew how to get out of his crib and out the front door. Her story has a happy ending, and she's sharing this experience now in the hopes of saving other children, too.
"My biggest fear was that he had gotten into some water somewhere," recounted Buckner. "He's absolutely fearless."
Buckner relived the nightmare as she talked with me about that horrible night. She works 24 hour shifts as a Lieutenant with Jacksonville Fire Rescue. Her son was home with a babysitter when he awoke in the middle of the night and managed to unlock the deadbolt and walk out the front door.
Buckner's sitter called her frantic, when she awoke to find the child missing. Buckner explains how her mind was racing when she received the call. She says she worried, "Did he make contact with the wrong person at the wrong time, in the wrong environment?"
Asking herself, Had Ryan been kidnapped? Was he lost? It was hours of not knowing.
"He's completely vulnerable," she added.
"I never thought as a paramedic or my experience with missing children that my son would ever be the one that was missing," she told me.
And that's why Buckner is sharing her story. Parents never think it will happen to them.
Ryan did something Buckner says she had no idea he could do. He demonstrated for our cameras his ability to unlock the deadbolt on the front door and walk right out. And he walked far. He rounded the corner on the street, walked right out of his neighborhood, across a two-lane road, passed a retention pond and then entered another neighborhood where a stranger found Ryan standing in her living room. It was 2 a.m.
The woman called police and Ryan and Buckner were reunited a few hours later.
"The lady who found him is an angel," said Buckner. "She did everything right. Our family has never had any contact with that family or their children," she added.
Ryan's babysitter lives in the neighborhood where he was found. It's possible he was walking to her house and happened to walk into the wrong home. The door to that home must have been unlocked, but they still don't know how Ryan managed to open it and get into a stranger's living room.
He was wearing long pajamas. It was a freezing night. The feet of his pajamas were wet, which is how police knew he must have walked some distance to get to the home. Officers estimate he wandered about half a mile from his house.
Buckner says the biggest lesson she learned from this, "Don't underestimate your kids' capabilities. Just because I knew that he knew how to work a door knob, it never occurred to me that he knew how to work a deadbolt."
She says, "Never any indication he knew how, never, nothing. He had never touched the deadbolt, he had never played with it, nothing."
And Buckner knows Ryan was very lucky to be back at home safe and sound.
"There's a pack of angels watching over him," she said. "There's no other way to describe it."
As a fire-rescue lieutenant, Buckner says she had taken every safety precaution with her son. Since his escape, she says she has added to her home security measures. She has installed a slide lock at the top of all the doors leading from her home. She says she had Ryan stand on the tallest stool in her home and then installed the lock above where he could reach. Just to make sure he could never unlock it. She has to stand on her tip-toes just to unlock it herself.
The Clay County Sheriff's Office and the Department of Children and Families investigated Buckner, which is standard procedure in missing children cases, and cleared her of any wrong doing related to her son's actions.
We've reported far too often about children who wander away from their homes and something terrible happens. Recently, 18-month-old Layla Granno wandered into a neighborhood retention pond. Her parents were unpacking and didn't notice that she had slipped out of their sight. She was found floating near her Dinsmore home and was critically injured. It's a reminder to every parent, it's not a matter of if your child will wander off, it's really a matter of when.
Drowning is the leading cause of death of children under the age of 5 in Florida. While the American Academy of Pediatrics had previously discouraged swim lessons among children between 1 and 4 years old, doctors have changed their thought process.
AAP says new evidence shows that children ages 1 to 4 may be less likely to drown if they have had formal swimming instruction. It says the studies are small, and they don't define what type of lessons work best, so the AAP is not recommending mandatory swim lessons for all children ages 1 to 4 at this time.
New guidance recommends that parents should decide whether to enroll an individual child in swim lessons based on the child's frequency of exposure to water, emotional development, physical abilities, and certain health conditions related to pool water infections and pool chemicals.
I'd like to thank Lt. Buckner for sharing her story. Having visited her home and talked with her at length about her son's ordeal, it's obvious she thought she was taking all the necessary precautions to keep her son safe. Her story illustrates that young children are capable of doing more than we, as parents, can predict.
I hope you will share her story with your family, friends and neighbors and it will help save a child's life.