Federal regulators recalled about 1million cribs Friday because the drop rail on some of the nation's best-selling models can detach from the crib's frame, creating a dangerous gap that has led to the deaths of at least three children.
After inquiries from the Tribune for an investigation of Simplicity Inc. cribs, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced the recall of cribs sold under both the Simplicity and Graco names. Covering all cribs made by Simplicity from 1998 through May 2007, it is the largest recall of full-size cribs since the safety commission was created in the 1970s.
"We want parents to know," CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said in an interview. "We do not want your child in that crib tonight."
The Tribune's reporting had found numerous complaints about the design of a popular Simplicity crib, the Aspen 3 in 1, documenting the failure of the federal watchdog agency to fully investigate the deadly failure of such a crib in 2005. Over the last week, the Tribune shared its findings with Simplicity and the safety commission, seeking comment.
The response was the massive recall. It includes the Aspen 3 in 1 -- Simplicity's most popular crib during the time the company sold 600,000 of them from 2002 to 2005.
Though all the cribs covered by the recall were made in China, the CPSC said it was Simplicity's flawed design and hardware that were responsible for the problem, which the agency said led to seven other non-fatal cases of infants being trapped and 55 other complaints of drop-rail problems.
The design flaw allowed caregivers to unintentionally install the drop rail upside down, weakening the hardware and causing the rail to separate from the frame. The three infants who died slipped through the resulting gap, became trapped and asphyxiated.
Simplicity President Ken Waldman said the company redesigned its crib hardware two years ago as a result of consumer complaints. But he would not say why the recall did not occur earlier.
"We analyzed the situation, and we needed to make a decision," he said in an interview.
The company is not offering consumers a replacement crib. Those who contact Simplicity can obtain a repair kit with the new hardware intended to keep the rail from separating. Asked about the decision to replace hardware instead of the cribs in their entirety, Waldman said: "Working with the CPSC, we found the best remedy was to send new, updated hardware."
But a leading child-product safety advocate criticized the decision to leave parents responsible for making the fix themselves.
"Given Simplicity's track record of four crib recalls in a little [over] two years, parents may want to take other measures such as discontinuing the use of the crib," said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids In Danger, which was created after a Chicago child died in a portable crib that collapsed and strangled him. "We would urge Simplicity to reimburse any parents who would feel safer returning the crib."
Waldman said consumers could expect to receive the replacement kit "within four weeks."
Cowles noted that such a recall leaves parents with a difficult decision.
"If their crib is one of the unsafe ones, they have a dilemma of where to put their baby to sleep tonight," she said. "Sleeping on other surfaces such as adult beds or sofas or chairs is too risky. We would suggest if they have a portable crib or play yard they use when traveling, that might be the best solution until they can get their crib repaired or replaced."
Crib retrieved, long after death
The CPSC said it is aware of two deaths in Simplicity-manufactured cribs with the older-style hardware where the drop rail was installed upside down. A Tribune investigation determined the identity of those two babies: Liam Johns, a 9-month-old from Citrus Heights, Calif., died in April 2005. Edward Millwood of Woodstock, Ga., was 6 months old when he died in November 2006. Neither the agency nor the company would disclose the name of the third child who died when the drop rail separated from the crib.
More than two years after Liam's death, following the Tribune's inquiries, the CPSC sent an investigator this week to finally retrieve the crib in which he died and examine its flaws. Three days later, the agency announced the recall.
Waldman said the Tribune's investigation did not prompt the recall. He said the company speaks weekly with CPSC, "trying to make our products safer."
He declined to speak about any of the deaths. "Parents deserve their own privacy," he said, "out of respect for them."
The Johns family settled a lawsuit with Simplicity for an undisclosed sum. Charles Kelly, the San Francisco attorney who represented the family in the suit, said that while "we are pleased with the recall, it is inexcusable that it took over two years and three deaths before CPSC acknowledged the risk posed by the drop side.
"Congress must give CPSC the necessary funding so that it can move faster to protect our nation's children."
Friday's recall was just the latest in a series of such actions resulting from revelations about dangerous consumer products. Senators who have been pushing for improvements in how the CPSC does its job said the crib recall was further proof that the agency needed more vigorous enforcement and less influence by industry on the agency's investigations.
"When parents put their children to bed at night, they trust that the crib they're using will be the safest place for them, outside of their arms," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). "When you look at the series of recalls of children's products over the last few months, one thing becomes clear: Greater steps need to be taken to test and certify the safety of products designed for children."
The cause of the latest crib recall was flawed hardware intended to hold the drop rail to the frame of the crib. In addition to Liam and Edward's deaths, the CPSC is investigating the death of the 1-year-old child who was in a Simplicity crib with the newer-style hardware but with the drop rail installed upside down.
The 'crib swallowed him'
A fourth child, 19-month-old Anthony Hutchins of Myrtle Creek, Ore., died in January 2006 when the mattress supports on his Aspen 3 in 1 collapsed. His mother told police that the "crib swallowed him."
The CPSC had recalled 104,000 of those cribs in December 2005 because of complaints about the mattress supports.
Friday's recall was the largest ever in the U.S. for full-size cribs. In 1997, Evenflo recalled 1.2 million smaller, portable cribs.
The Simplicity crib models covered by Friday's recall include: Aspen 3 in 1, Aspen 4 in 1, Nursery-in-a-Box, Crib N Changer Combo, Chelsea and Pooh 4 in 1. The recall also involves Simplicity cribs that used the Graco logo: Aspen 3 in 1, Ultra 3 in 1, Ultra 4 in 1, Ultra 5 in 1, Whitney and Trio.
The cribs have one of the following model numbers: 4600, 4605, 4705, 5000, 8000, 8324, 8800, 8740, 8910, 8994, 8050, 8750, 8760 and 8996. The numbers can be found on the envelope attached to the mattress support and on the label attached to the headboard.
The cribs were sold in department stores, children's stores and mass merchandisers nationwide from January 1998 through May 2007 for $100 to $300.
Millie Nichols, 32, of Portland, Tenn., purchased an Aspen 3 in 1 crib in 2004 for her daughter. Terrified after the mattress supports fell and the baby dropped through to a pile of clothes underneath, she complained to the CPSC and Simplicity and received a new metal mattress support.
Earlier this month, contacted by the Tribune, Nichols said she was using the crib for her 12-month-old daughter, Jasmine. Asked if she had any problems with the crib, she said: "The mattress is fine. The drop rail falls down, though. Sometimes one end doesn't catch."
Told of Liam's death and other complaints about the drop rail, she said she was going to stop using the crib immediately.
"I don't care if they offer me a steel reinforcement and bless it with holy water," she said, "my child is not getting in this crib again."
Nichols said Friday that her husband had dismantled it.
"My baby is sleeping in the playpen. We don't feel safe with that crib," she said. "I want a new crib, and I want that one to go into the trash."
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