Daniel Keysar died on May 12 at his babysitter’s home when his portable crib collapsed and strangled him. It was a freak accident, his parents, Boaz Keysar and Linda Ginzel, were certain. The Chicago couple didn’t blame the babysitter: Only eight days before, state child welfare workers had inspected and approved her Sweet Tots daycare center, and she had loved the 17-month-old toddler like one of her own.
So there was only sorrow when Ginzel held her son for the last time in the Children’s Memorial Hospital emergency room. “I touched his little toes and rubbed his belly,” Ginzel says. “I was very calm.” (Reporter E. Marla Felcher is a personal friend of the Keysar-Ginzel family. — Eds.)
The day before Danny’s funeral, Ginzel’s calm evaporated when she learned that the Playskool Travel-Lite Portable Crib that killed Danny had been recalled five years earlier by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). In three incidents, toddlers apparently collapsed the crib’s top side rails, wedging their necks inside the folded V of the rails and suffocating.
Keysar and Ginzel were stunned. Why hadn’t anyone, not even the state inspectors, known it was dangerous?
A Mother Jones investigation shows that, too often, the recall system fails. While manufacturers make use of their resources and marketing savvy to sell a crib, they do not always make the same effort later to tell consumers that the same crib could be deadly. The CPSC, the federal agency charged with overseeing recalls, can’t make them. Underfunded, understaffed, and buffeted by political forces, the CPSC depends too heavily on the news media to warn consumers about potentially dangerous products.
“Consumers have a sense that the product wouldn’t be sold if it weren’t safe, that the government is…actively checking,” says Mary Ellen Fise, product safety director for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA). “This is simply not true.”
The CPSC and Kolcraft Enterprises, the manufacturer that made the Travel-Lite crib under Hasbro’s Playskool brand name, initially announced the recall in 1993, again in April before Danny died, and a third time in June. The message still failed to reach some members of the public. On Aug. 19, 10-month-old William Curran of Fair Haven, N.J., died at his babysitter’s house, reportedly trapped in a collapsed Kolcraft portable crib. (The CPSC is investigating the incident.)
“We have been doing all that we can to get the word out,” Kolcraft president Thomas Koltun said in a statement released to Mother Jones.
Yet getting “the word out” can be particularly difficult with infant products (a $4.42 billion market in 1997). Even while new products keep coming, used ones remain in circulation as hand-me-downs and yard sale staples.
Since 1993, more than 1.5 million portable cribs have been recalled. Kolcraft sold nearly 12,000 Travel-Lites before recalling them and now offers consumers a $60 refund for the crib, originally priced at about $89. How many have actually been recovered or discarded is impossible to tell. While the CPSC may know, it cannot legally release this information; Kolcraft declined requests to answer specific questions.
The CPSC oversees the safety of 15,000 different types of consumer products, but operates at a fraction of the budget it had 24 years ago. The commission suffered severe budget and staffing cuts in the ’80s under the pro-business thumb of Ronald Reagan. Its 1997 budget of $42.5 million is still 60 percent lower than the $90 million (adjusted for inflation) it had in 1974; staffing levels are 43 percent lower.
Politics also seems to influence the CPSC’s enthusiasm for regulating manufacturers. In 1989, the Danny Foundation, a California-based nonprofit organization dedicated to crib safety, petitioned the CPSC to recall all cribs with finials (decorative corner posts). The finials represented a clear danger, says Jack Walsh, the foundation’s executive director. Since the mid-’70s, more than 30 children had died from being caught in them, and Canada had already banned the corner-post design. But after two years of review, the CPSC turned the petition down — the result, Walsh says, of an anti-regulatory political climate. “It was outrageous. If there was ever a clear case for a recall, this was it,” Walsh says.
To its credit, the CPSC has greatly increased its watch over products and manufacturers under its current chair, Clinton appointee Ann Brown (who declined Mother Jones’ request for an interview). In 1997, the CPSC issued 266 recalls of defective products, compared with 105 in 1990.
The CPSC depends on several methods for identifying potentially dangerous products; still, the recall process has fundamental flaws. Consumers can complain to the CPSC’s toll-free hotline; last year, the agency received 3,555 reports of unsafe products (fewer than 10 a day).
The CPSC gathers independent statistical information from a patchwork of sources, including emergency room data, newspaper articles, medical examiner and police reports, and field inspections. The commission describes itself as “data driven,” but its information on product-related injuries is “often sketchy,” according to a 1997 General Accounting Office report.
Finally, the agency relies on manufacturers, which are legally obligated to notify the CPSC within 24 hours when they learn of a product defect that could cause injury or death. CPSC officials concede that underreporting is a serious problem.
In 1997, the commission negotiated a total of $695,000 in civil penalties with companies that broke this law. For example, the CPSC charged Century Products with failing to report problems with certain cribs and strollers even after 560 consumer complaints, including 29 injuries. While Century denies any wrongdoing, in February it agreed to pay a civil penalty of $225,000.
Identifying dangerous products is only the first step. How the CPSC notifies the public is also controversial. Although companies rarely dispute the need for a consumer alert, manufacturers worry about how their brand name is perceived and negotiate the terms of a recall with federal regulators in closed-door meetings. “We are always looking for new and innovative ways to do a recall,” CPSC spokesman Russ Rader says. “We negotiate notification measures; it’s not a cookbook.”
Both the CPSC and manufacturers rely heavily on the news media. Increasingly, the CPSC has put a lot of faith in the power of video news releases: graphic demonstrations of product hazards that the agency sends via satellite to local and network news stations. CPSC officials complain, however, that unless somebody has died, the media ignores recall notices. “The media prints lottery results, but not recalls,” Rader says. “The news media should be a party in some of these lawsuits that are going after the manufacturers.”
A month before Danny Keysar died, the CPSC highlighted the Travel-Lite’s faulty design in its annual “Recall Round-Up,” a video news release of high-risk products the agency believes are still in people’s homes. Nationwide, 140 stations picked it up, but not one station in New Jersey or Chicago — where William Curran’s and Danny Keysar’s babysitters live — aired it.
Regardless of impact, manufacturers don’t like videos, says David H. Baker, a lawyer in the Washington, D.C., office of Thompson, Hine & Flory, a firm that represents manufacturers. “You can’t consistently be in the consumer’s face saying, ‘Sorry, we made a defective product.'”
Indeed, bad publicity from recalls can be bad for the bottom line. Paul Rubin, an economics professor at Emory University and former chief economist for the CPSC, estimates that a company loses up to 7 percent of its net worth after a recall.
Consumer advocates believe the CPSC should place more of a burden on manufacturers. While the CPSC requires companies to document a recall’s progress, such as whether it was mentioned in any news media, its regulations do not require companies to meet specific numerical goals for recovering recalled products. The CPSC doesn’t even ask companies to report how much they spend on recalls. CPSC compliance officials estimate that the average manufacturer spends at least $250,000. A Hasbro spokesman said his company spends between “several hundred thousand to millions” on any given product recall.
“The reason [manufacturers] go into this is to make a profit,” the CFA’s Fise says. “In exchange, they have the responsibility not to injure or kill someone. Manufacturers have this enormous responsibility, yet the CPSC can’t force them to take it. In most cases, the CPSC doesn’t have the resources to litigate every case.”
A month after Danny’s death, Ginzel and Keysar established Kids in Danger, a foundation that informs parents and caregivers about recalled nursery equipment. In June, they filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against Kolcraft and Hasbro. “I’d so much rather be playing with Danny,” Ginzel says, “instead of trying to save the next child.”