Sixteen years after her daughter’s dresser tip-over death, Sterling mom still fighting for safer furniture standards
Kimberly Amato still has her daughter Meghan’s Christmas outfit from 2004. A red velvet skirt with white embroidery and a black turtleneck sweater, it’s tucked away with some other tiny toddler clothes – the tags still on it.
Meghan never wore the sweet little outfit. Sixteen years ago, a week before Christmas, she died under a dresser on her bedroom floor while the rest of her family was asleep.
No one in the house heard the dresser fall. Meghan’s little body prevented it from hitting the floor hard, and she was unable to cry. She suffocated as a result of airway compression by a drawer.
Before the nightmare unfolded, Amato, of Sterling, had never heard of a dresser tipping over onto a child. At the time, she was a childbirth educator and birth doula with a 6-year-old boy and 3-year-old year twins – Meghan and her twin brother – who had carefully childproofed everything in her house.
“I was often accused of being overly-protective and over the top with the childproofing. I had even removed the furniture from the living room so they couldn't jump off of it,” she said. “I was teaching infant care classes and this was not something that was part of the curriculum. It wasn't in parenting magazines or classes. Furniture anchors were not sold in stores with other childproofing supplies, so no one knew they existed.”
Amato never imagined the short, 100-pound dresser in her daughter’s room would, or even could, tip over. She never imagined her blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl, who weighed just 28 pounds, could somehow pull down a stable-looking piece of furniture that took two adults to move. Marketed for children’s rooms, Amato figured the dresser had been vetted for safety.
It is a common assumption, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey. Ninety-six percent of Americans believe that home goods costing $75 or more, such as dressers, adhere to a required safety standard.
But that wasn’t the case when Meghan died on Dec. 18, 2004. And it still isn’t true today.
Called to action
Every day, nearly 40 kids are injured when a piece of furniture, an appliance, or a television tips over, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC). And on average, a child dies in such an incident about every two weeks.
The CPSC’s most recent report attributes furniture tip-overs to the deaths of 556 people from 2000 to 2018. Most victims were between the ages of 1 to 3 ½ years old, and nearly all of them were under the age 14. And at least 210 people—mostly children ages 6 and younger—have been killed when dressers or other furniture that store clothes have tipped over.
Still, regulations and safety standards remain unchanged. In fact, there is no mandatory safety standard for the stability of furniture like dressers.
Instead, there is only a voluntary standard, which states that a clothing storage unit taller than 27 inches should stay standing with 50 pounds of weight hanging from an open drawer, while the other drawers are closed. Manufacturers have the option to meet this standard or not.
“The more I learned, the more angry I became,” Amato said. “The industry expects the consumer to finish making the furniture safe by anchoring it to the wall, however studies have shown that even if parents are aware that dressers can tip, many still don't anchor them, either because they don't think it will happen to them, because they don't have the tools or know-how, or they rent and are afraid they will lose their security deposit.”
Since she lost Meggie, Amato has been working to change this. The very night Meghan died, Amato wrote an email to her loved ones to inform them of the tragedy, and implore them to anchor their dressers to the wall.
Within weeks, she founded Meghan’s Hope, an organization to raise awareness of furniture tip-overs. She told her story with local mom groups and day cares, exhibited at safety fairs, asked pediatric offices to post or share flyers and brochures.
In 2014, she became a spokesperson for Nationwide's Make Safe Happen Campaign, and the following year, helped inform the CPSC’s Anchor It! campaign. The advent of blogging and social media helped Amato reach more and more people, but still, she wanted to find a way to move beyond awareness, and drive change.
Two years ago, Amato and six other families from across the nation who had lost children in tip-overs formed Parents Against Tip-Overs (PAT). “We'd all been doing a similar thing, trying to educate and raise awareness in our local area, and were all having trouble reaching the people we knew we needed to reach and to do so nationally,” she said.
Partnering with other consumer advocacy groups like Kids in Danger, Consumer Reports, and the Consumer Federation of America, PAT created a plan gaining the attention they believe the tip-over issue deserves. Then, they went to Washington.
A federal standard
PAT families are among dozens of groups lobbying for stronger standards and advocating for the passage of the STUDY Act (Stop Tip-Overs of Unstable Risky Dressers on Youth), which would require a mandatory safety standard for dressers within one year of its enactment.
“The industry’s standards are completely voluntary and don’t protect enough children,” said William Wallace, manager, Home and Safety Policy for Consumer Reports. “Right now, there’s no easy way to simply look at a dresser and tell whether it’s likely to tip over—so it’s critical to put a strong standard in place that consumers can trust.”
Where the voluntary standard falls short – not accounting for situations like a child climbing, sitting or standing on drawers, or even the dresser being on carpet – the STURDY Act calls for testing stability for real-life scenarios on all free-standing clothing units. That would include loaded drawers and multiple open drawers, accounting for the impact of carpeting on stability, and simulating the dynamic forces a climbing child would cause.
The law would also mandate strong warning requirements and labels.
The STURDY Act passed the House with bipartisan support last fall, but has been sitting in the Senate Committee of Commerce, Science and Consumer Protection for over a year.
If it doesn’t pass the Senate by the end of this year, advocates will have to start over with the next session of Congress in January. Frustrated, Amato blames “bitter partisanship” for the failure in moving the bill forward.
“I assure you that furniture falls equally on children, regardless of whether their parents are Republicans or Democrats,” Amato wrote in an op-ed published last month in USA Today. “This is not a partisan issue.”
What you should do
Parents aren’t helpless as they wait on lawmakers or the furniture industry to make changes. Families can dramatically reduce the risk of tip-overs by properly anchoring items that can tip or fall to the wall.
“The No. 1 excuse I hear is ‘I'm always with my kids,’” said Amato. “You aren't. You sleep. You use the bathroom. You look at your phone, the TV, or a computer while you are ‘watching’ your kids. You are human. It’s OK.”
Amato reminds parents that no one thinks “it” will happen to them – whatever “it” might be. Tip-overs happen every 24 minutes, and about every 30 minutes, tipped furniture or a falling TV sends an injured child to the emergency room. More than half of tip-overs happen in a bedroom, but it’s not just dressers that can fall: shelving units, wardrobes, televisions, and appliances can all be dangerous.
“What I want to say to parents is this: You cannot tell by looking at a piece of furniture if it will tip. It doesn't matter how tall or short it is, how heavy or light it is, how old or new it is, how expensive or cheap it is, who made it or where you bought it. Physics is what causes furniture to tip,” said Amato. “You can be in the same room and be powerless to stop it.”
AnchorIt.gov has tips and how-tos for securing furniture. Anti-tip straps or anti-tip kits are sold online and in-stores for as low as $5 and take as little as five minutes to install.
“The money it costs to anchor everything is a small price compared to a funeral,” said Amato. “I know that sounds harsh, but I buried my beautiful little girl three days before Christmas. I share her story so you don't ever have to walk in my shoes.”