Kathleen Leeson, with her daughter Hanna Leeson, 4, at their… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
Kathleen Leeson was loading clothes in her dryer just a few dozen feet away from her foster son in August when he accidentally strangled himself with the window blind cords in her Montgomery Village home.
In just a few seconds, and with no noise, the 2-year-old boy was unconscious. Angel Duenas would die later in a hospital, one of the 12 children per year killed on average by dangerous window coverings.
"They don't thrash around. They don't yell for help," Leeson said. "They die so quickly and so silently that there's no way for anyone to know they're in trouble until they're found."
Now, the mother is spreading the word that only cordless window coverings are safe for households where children live and visit.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission calls window coverings with cords one of the top five hidden household safety hazards. The commission has recalled more than 5 million roller blinds, Roman shades and corded window blinds in recent years. Still, an average of one child ages 7 months through 10 years old is killed every month by these products, and another child is nearly strangled, according to the commission.
In October, both the CPSC and the industry's Window Covering Safety Council recommended that only cordless window treatments be used in homes that children frequent. And in response to a plea by Leeson, state Sen. Nancy King, a Montgomery County Democrat, is developing legislation to include window coverings in the safety inspections for day care centers and foster homes.
Unlike other hazards, families can eliminate or mitigate this one in their homes, according to King.
Kids "can have enough accidents as it is," she said. "If there's something you can do to prevent accidents, you have to do it. ... It's one concern we shouldn't have to deal with."
Said Michael Cienian, a window manufacturing executive and past president of the Window Covering Safety Council: "Not everybody is thinking about this stuff. Every year there's new parents and new grandparents, and there's still a lot of old products out there."
If families feel it's too expensive to replace their blinds and shades, the CPSC and the council recommend installing free safety retrofit kits that can be ordered through the council by calling 800-506-4636 or by going to windowcoverings.org.
"It's a choice of good, better, best," CPSC spokeswoman Kim Dulic said. "The best option would be to eliminate all cords and go cordless." However, "you may not be able to afford the best option."
Linda Kaiser, who founded the nonprofit Parents for Window Blind Safety in 2002, said there are safe and inexpensive cordless alternatives that aren't difficult to install. Safety kits have prevented some deaths, but not all. And although the CPSC has recalled individual products, similar items remain available for sale, presenting a constant threat, according to Kaiser.
"Kids were still finding a way to the cords," she said.
Kaiser has been advocating for years for cordless products in homes with children, so it was a great victory that the CPSC and the industry group now also recommend them, she said.
"If all three agencies are saying the same thing, then obviously the public won't be confused," Kaiser said.
She founded the window blind safety group five months after her daughter died after getting caught in a cord. Six other children died in similar accidents in that time, she said, and more than 100 children have died due to pull-cords, as well as the inner strings that lift the window treatments, since a large recall in 2000.
Kaiser believes there might be even more deaths, because not all such incidents are reported. Just this month, 2-year-old Thapelo Kwofie died after strangling on a curtain cord at his Damascus home, said his father, Andrew.
Based on her experience, Leeson takes a more hard-line approach for homes with children than the CPSC and the industry group.
"Put newspaper in the window," she said. "As long as they have corded window treatments in their home, they are in danger. They cannot make the cords safe."
Until the accident involving her foster son, Leeson said, she had no idea the cords were such a threat. Her main worry was that her children "would put their head between the slats." The half-inch mini-blinds that killed Angel were manufactured in 2001, after the recalls, and had safety features, according to Leeson.
"But it didn't protect his life," she said.
She couldn't anticipate what her 4-year-old daughter would do. After the accident, the girl showed a police detective how she climbed up on a toy and pulled down the cord, which had gotten tangled in a loop.
"She pulled it down just enough to make a loop that killed Angel," Leeson said.
The kids were pretending it was a zip line, like on the cartoon "Go Diego Go!"
"He had been playing all day with a cape," she said.
After Angel's death, Leeson sent an e-mail to state legislators, seeking to launch an effort to prevent such a tragedy in other foster homes. King responded.
"At least as a starting point, we can do it with day care and foster care," the senator said.
As written, the legislation requires either cordless window treatments or, if cords are present, that they be fixed with repair kits.
"It's hard enough to find foster parents," King said. "I don't want to add expense."
Maryland's Social Services Administration is also considering requiring safety features for blinds with cords during a routine update of its foster home regulations in the spring, said Nancy Lineman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources. Right now, no such rules exist.
Given that the precautions Leeson took did not prevent Angel's death, the Montgomery County woman thinks there is only one answer: Get rid of corded window coverings.
"I don't want anybody to have to go through what I went through," she said.