By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Erica Barnes Thomas is the last person you’d expect to lose a child to a hidden household danger.
But on March 1 of last year, she checked on her son Cormac, in his bedroom, and discovered a horrifying scene. The adventurous 2-year-old had climbed onto a rocking chair to look out the window and fallen, getting tangled in the process in a cord that ran along the back of the window blinds in his bedroom. He was already dead when she found him.
The Niskayuna High School graduate, who now lives outside of Washington, D.C., still struggles to talk about the loss of her youngest son. Her older child, Charlie, is 71⁄2. Mac, as he was known, should have been 3 now.
However, Barnes Thomas, a professional health advocate, consistently says yes to requests for interviews. She hopes the emotional strain she faces each time she remembers that awful morning will motivate even one family or day care center to make the environment safer for children.
“My goal at this point is just that people understand what happened, and why it’s not a 1-in-a-million thing,” Barnes Thomas said.
“It’s not that I was a negligent mother kind of scenario. I probably fall out in the camp of neurotic, overprotective, over-diligent mother. My cautionary tale for people is, “Believe me: If it can happen to me, then it can happen to you.’ ”
The main point she makes repeatedly and adamantly is that having a child safety release on the pull cord of a window shade, or tying up the pull cord out of easy reach, is not enough to keep children from becoming seriously injured or killed from window-blind asphyxiation.
“I knew about the pull cord,” she said. “My thought was that if I bought window blinds that had no pull cords, he would be safe.”
In the Barnes Thomas home, the pull cord for the window blind was fixed to the ceiling, with a childproof release that would fall apart if tugged firmly.
“But that’s not what he died on,” Barnes Thomas continued. Strands of cord running behind the blinds were the unseen danger that took her son.
“I can tell you in my support group, almost every one of [the children of parents there] died on a pull cord that was cut short or tied up to the ceiling,” she said. “If they can see it, they can get to it.”
Barnes Thomas said she prays education and publicity will prevent other mothers from having to go through what she has. But she knows it won’t be enough to completely preclude the possibility.
That’s why she joined a small nonprofit called Parents for Window Blind Safety. Members provide safety testing and grief support, but their main objective is to lobby for regulations that would prevent manufacturers from producing blinds that have cords.
“I want people to understand that the industry has to change,” she said. “There has been no change in the death rate in 20 years, despite all the quote-unquote education.”
It’s a frustrating process. Barnes Thomas is not directly involved in the lobbying side of the nonprofit business, but she keeps tabs on her coworkers’ progress. She said for every dollar they raise to lobby against the continued production of hazardous window treatments, large home goods companies can pull together what seems like a million dollars.
But she hopes the combined voices of many parents can supersede the open wallets of large companies.
Recently, the Consumer Product Safety Commission opened public comment so anyone who wants to weigh in on the creation of mandatory safety standards for window covering manufacturers, whether in favor or against, can do so.
“It’s actually a pretty big deal,” Barnes Thomas said.
In the future, she hopes to become even more involved in the fight for safer window covers. But for now, she’s trying to heal as the first anniversary of Mac’s death approaches.
One fact, in particular, will distract from that painful milestone: Barnes Thomas is expecting a daughter within a few weeks.
“It’s hard for me, now, to imagine what it will be like having a girl,” she said.
You can weigh in on the proposed new standards by visiting http://1.usa.gov/1zSqer9.