There’s all this talk this election season about government overreach.
So let’s talk about a case where the government barely stretched and certainly didn’t reach.
If the government had done more to insist that millions of blinds hanging on millions of American windows be safe for kids, Cormac Thomas would be a 4-year-old in a preschool in Bethesda, Md., now. And first-grader Adam Bailey would probably be wearing pajamas on Pajama Day this week at his elementary school in Frederick, Md.
But Adam didn’t make it to Pajama Day at Whittier Elementary. And Cormac will forever be 2 in his parents’ photos.
Blind cords and baby deaths. Remember those horrible stories? They’re not new. And the worst part is, they haven’t gone away because the blinds industry — with some notable exceptions — has been reluctant to stop making window treatments that are dangerous for kids. And government regulators haven’t made them do so, despite pleading from parents.
Hundreds of children have been tangled in blind cords over the past 30 years, according to the nonprofit group Parents for Window Blind Safety. More than 300 of those cases were fatal, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says. Almost 300 more children didn’t die but were injured, according to the parents group, with some suffering permanent brain damage or quadriplegia requiring lifelong care and therapy.
Cordless blinds are available, but they cost a bit more.
SelectBlinds.com just changed its entire inventory to cordless. Ikea and Target have changed their stocks to cordless, too. Now Lowe’s, Home Depot and Walmart have pledged to get the corded blinds off their shelves by 2018.
But none of that will change anything for Adam Bailey. The 7-year-old was found dead last month, tangled in window-blind cords that are standard issue in his family’s military housing at Fort Detrick. The Army is investigating whether the blinds caused his death, a spokesman said. But it seems likely.
The fight by parents to make blinds safer has been epic.
“It’s been going on for 30 years, actually,” acknowledged Elliot Kaye, the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has finally joined with parents in urging retailers to stop carrying corded blinds.
Kaye meets many parents who never wanted to be part of a window blinds safety crusade. Erica Barnes Thomas, Cormac’s mom, is one of those parents.
“In a million years, I would never have imagined it could happen to me,” she said. “I am a little bit of a control freak. I’m very type A and a little bit OCD about safety and cleanliness. We were so careful about everything.”
Everything in their Bethesda home was baby-proofed: the outlets, the safety gates, the furniture bolted to the walls. She does a weekly scan of all household items that have been recalled.
When it came to window blinds, she read up on them and got Roman shades with cords tucked behind the shades and child releases on them. And she and her husband hung them so the tucked-away cord was on the side away from the toddler’s bed.
She was downstairs making breakfast for their older son, Charlie, who is now 8, that morning in 2014. Her husband, an Army doctor, was about to come home from a deployment. And Cormac — Mac — was sleeping in a little.
When she went to check on him, she found him on the floor beneath the window. A single handprint was on the glass. When she touched him, she knew he was gone.
“When you lose a child, it’s a monster you cannot get away from,” she said. “It’s like a terror that never goes away.”
She’s part of a support group for parents who have lost kids to window blinds. There is so much grief. She talks about being lucky to have found her son on the floor. Some kids are found hanging.
The deaths are fast and silent. Often, the parent is in the same room and turns away to change a channel or put away laundry. Those thin cords are sharp and quick on little necks.
Thomas knows a mom who still can’t get out of bed, years later. And parents who don’t want to talk at all.
Beyond the crushing grief, there is guilt, and a world that doesn’t easily forgive parents for anything.
Thomas has read comments on articles about her son’s death made by people who blame her for leaving a 2-year-old unsupervised while sleeping. Who blame parents for living in cheap apartments with cheap blinds.
She has heard lobbyists say that not enough children have died for the industry to address the issue.
Thomas has put her energy into the battle to make blinds safer and has teamed up with Kaye, the father of two boys, 6 and 11.
“From our perspective, the biggest holdup is the desire for the industry to make the difficult choice to change,” Kaye said.
Most safety standards have been voluntary, not mandatory. Kaye’s predecessor, Nancy Nord, emphasized education during her tenure, especially because many deaths occur with old window treatments that wouldn’t have been subjected to new manufacturing standards anyway.
The truth is, 30 years of pamphlets, public service announcements and dangling cords haven’t prevented kids’ deaths, said Kaye, who called the issue “probably the best example of the failure of trying to run education campaigns.”
In 2013, parents and safety advocates petitioned the commission to impose mandatory safety standards. The following year, the commission voted to start the process for implementing those standards.
In a letter after the 2014 vote, the industry assured the commission that it wanted to make blinds safer. “It is our member companies who are driving innovation and producing new technologies to further minimize the risk associated with these products,” wrote Ralph Vasami, executive director of the Window Covering Manufacturers Association.
The commission’s action will help when it comes to cases such as military housing, where low-bid contracts and procurement rules dictate what goes on a window. Kaye said the safety commission has begun its own investigation of Adam’s death at Fort Detrick and will try to work with the military to address the larger safety issue.
Cordless blinds are the answer. They’re easier to use, more reliable (you know you’ve been there, making a string nest out of your blinds) and only $5 or so more expensive per unit, Kaye said.
It’s a product evolution that represents the direction of the industry anyway, said Kaye, who wants to hasten that change.
In this case, in honor of Mac and Adam and hundreds of kids who never made it to kindergarten: Keep reaching, government.
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