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Thursday 10 July 2014

Grieving parents of toddler who fell from window call for childproofing regulations

Linda Daly

Published 05/12/2013|17:48

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21-month-old Sebastian Pereira Kus had a huge personality, according to his mum Emmanuele.

The parents of a toddler who died after falling from an apartment window with a flimsy catch are urging the Government to instigate childproofing regulations.

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Despite the deaths of three toddlers in two years, there has been no move towards legislation or even education on childproofing apartment windows.

At 21 months old, Sebastian Pereira Kus had a huge personality.

On April 25, 2012, his mum Emmanuele’s worst nightmare happened. She had put Sebastian into bed for a nap as usual, and she went about her business in the apartment.

About half an hour later a paramedic knocked at her door.

“The paramedic asked me if I had a baby and I said ‘yes he was asleep. He asked me if I could go check on him’.”

“I went to the room and the only thing on the bed was the bottle. I looked out the window and saw Sebastian on the ground,” she recalls as she fights back the tears.

Sebastian had fallen 16 metres from the fourth floor apartment.

There were safety restrictors on the windows, which were designed to prevent it opening more than a few centimetres.

Emmanuele and her husband Kamil had even measured how wide the window opened to make sure Sebastian’s head wouldn’t fit out.

But at the inquest in July, gardai described the restrictors as “flimsy” and easily dislodged.

The inquest also heard that scene-of-crime examiners found that the safety restrictors were faulty.

Dublin city coroner Dr Brian Farrell noted that the windows had not been child proofed and the safety restrictors appeared “very fragile”.

“Their suitability must be questioned,” he said.

Emmanuele said: “After we came back from the hospital, I went to the room to try to understand what happened. I opened the window, I pushed it and the catch popped open. Sebastian learned things quickly. I’d no idea he was able to open the window and I also didn’t know the catches weren’t working.”

Kamil and Emmanuele are calling on the Government to instigate regulation around the childproofing of apartments to prevent future tragedies.

They’d also like an education campaign launched for parents living in apartments.

At Sebastian’s inquest Dr Farrell called on all landlords of tenants with children to ensure that child proofing was addressed.

The Dublin City Coroner’s Office has held two inquests in the past few years and has another case pending at the moment.

The cases so far involved an open window and a catch giving way.

In August 2012, 15-month-old toddler Nikola Batare died when she fell to her death from the top floor of the Cross Guns Quay apartment block in Phibsboro, Dublin 7.

She died as a result of severe head injuries sustained in the fall.

More recently, in September an 18 month old died in Finglas after falling from a third floor apartment.

At Nikola’s inquest Dr Farrell said: “Landlords of tenants with children and, indeed, parents need to be acutely aware of the dangers to children of windows that are not secure or childproofed.”

“What surprised us is that nothing is regulated,” says Emmanuele. “There is nobody to go to, to say please can you just check this and fix it? Can we have a rule that windows like this aren’t allowed in high apartments?

“We get frustrated. We lost our baby, and this is massive. We just want someone to even let us know if the window that took him away was fixed.”

The parents have also called on Daft.ie to ask landlords to include child proofing information on their ads.

“We would like for Daft to encourage landlords to put something in saying whether their apartments are suitable for babies or something about safety if their apartments are childproofed. More information needs to be given to people who are renting. Daft is the most popular [website] for renting.”

When contacted by Mothers & Babies, a spokesperson for Daft said it couldn’t comment on individual cases but that the team would discuss it.

The Kuses live in a ground floor apartment now and have a five-month-old son, Jacob, whom Emmanuele says she checks on every five minutes when he is asleep.

“Sebastian’s death changed our lives completely and we know that no matter what we do, no matter what happens, we are never going to be truly happy, but Jacob has helped us go on.”

“Before he arrived, we were very empty. When we lost Sebastian we lost everything. Jacob is the image of Sebastian. We’ll tell him about his older brother,” she says.

In December last year, Temple Street Children’s Hospital released a study urging “preventative safeguards for window falls in the home”.

It reported that the hospital dealt with 45 high fall cases between January 2010 and September 2012.

Of those, 80pc of the children were in the one to five age group. Twelve of the falls occurred from heights of 12 to 24 feet (3.66 to 7.35 metres).

In two cases, falls from a height greater than 24 feet were recorded, both of which occurred from high rise apartment windows and both resulted in death.

The children had multiple injuries and significant brain contusions, Temple Street said. 

There is no single authority that deals with child safety standards in apartments in Ireland.

Dublin city coroner Dr Brian Farrell wrote to the Private Residential Tenancies Board (PRTB) at the end of April regarding childproofing in windows of rental properties.

However, the PRTB responded to the letter in May, saying “the minimum standards for rented dwellings are set by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government under the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations, 2008 Act”.

The PRTB has been in communication with the Department on the matter, and Dr Farrell has also written separately to the Minister.

But when contacted the Department of the Environment it did not say if there has been any review since those correspondences.

In a statement, the department pointed to the Building Regulations 1997-2013, which set out the legal requirements for the construction of new buildings and extensions to existing ones.

However, under the regulations there are no general requirements for windows in high rise buildings to have window locks nor are there general requirements for such windows to have safety restrictors, it said.

There is guidance around pedestrian guarding for windows, which states that guarding should not be climbable.

Compliance with the regulations is the responsibility of the owner or developer but the local authority, which is in charge of enforcing the minimum standards, only has five years from the date of completion of a building to place an enforcement order.

The housing standards for rented houses, which were brought into force in 2008, do not specify window guarding or safety restrictors, although landlords must keep their houses “in a proper state of structural repair”.

The department says “windows are included among the structural elements which must be maintained in good condition and repair”.

But when contacted by Mothers & Babies, Dublin City Council said: “The Environmental Health Section, Housing and Residential Services enforce the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulation 2008. Childproof locks are not a requirement under this legislation. Changing policy and standards is a matter for the Department of the Environment.”

The children who have died in Dublin in the past few years have been children of foreign nationals.

Some of the windows in Ireland’s apartments are totally unsuited to people with children, but foreign nationals come from countries where apartment living is the norm and regarded as safe. They cannot be blamed for assuming that we maintain the same standard of safety in high-rise living here.

Surely an education programme focusing on falls should have been launched by now? We have a Health and Safety Authority that deals with accidents in the workplace. Why not have one body that deals effectively with the minimum standards of rental accommodation? The HSE has a Child Safety Awareness Programme, which includes references to windows, but why not launch a programme aimed at people living in apartments around child proofing?

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