Jennifer Kaufman's infant son Benjamin is only 7 months old, but he's already shooting for a gold medal in the Daredevil Baby Olympics. Benjamin has crashed the phone onto his head three times, rolled off the bed, burned his hand on the stove, smashed his head into a medicine cabinet and (trumpets, please) pulled down a gate on top of himself--one of the very gates his parents installed to keep him out of trouble.
And the champ hasn't even learned to walk yet.
His 'Newest Thing'
"He just finds the most dangerous thing in the room and goes for it," sighed his mother, a Beverly Hills-based free-lance writer. "His newest thing is pulling himself up on dresser drawers. Then he opens the drawer, sticks his hand in and shuts the drawer. It's just amazing how many different ways a kid can find to hurt himself."
Kaufman decided to take what some might consider drastic action. She recently sent her nanny out to buy a harness ("I used to laugh at those people who have their kids on leashes but now I completely understand it"). And she called Mr. Babyproofer.
Mr. Babyproofer, actually 26-year-old Danny McNeill, hopes to become to home safety providers what Aprica is to strollers, Jane Fonda is to prenatal exercise instruction and Volvos are to cars bearing "baby on board" signs: the preferred model among today's generation of new mothers.
A man with a kid-like demeanor yet a profound appreciation for safety (he also works occasionally as a movie stunt man), McNeill visits homes and installs drawer latches, cabinet locks, outlet plugs and outlet covers, refrigerator locks, doorknob covers, corner guards for coffee tables, toilet straps and custom-made items such as security gates and stair railing guards.
In addition, McNeill is known for spotting hazardous areas that even parents well versed in typical household dangers might overlook.
As one of his clients, Randy Gordon, put it, "My husband and I took a child safety class at Tarzana Hospital. I thought we'd covered everything. Then Danny came in and found some more things that we needed to do."
McNeill built customized Plexiglas gates for the Gordons within two weeks after they moved into their new home.
(According to McNeill, Plexiglas is no more baby-safe than other materials but it's more aesthetically pleasing because it's virtually invisible.)
"Most other gates are ugly," Gordon added. "Not to mention that it's miserable taking a gate off and putting it back on all the time.
"Danielle (the Gordons' 15-month-old daughter) is happier having the freedom of the house. It's very frustrating for a child to be restricted and not be able to explore. And we have peace of mind--we were without it until those gates were put in." And until all the drawer latches, cabinet locks and outlet covers were installed (which the Gordons did themselves).
Some of McNeill's clients do these basics on their own, then call the expert for areas they don't know how to handle.
Fireplaces, for example, often require considerable creativity. McNeill said his clients predictably don't want holes drilled into brick and the brick is so porous that it absorbs gummed materials that could be used to affix rubber strips. So McNeill recommends that his clients put glass doors on the fireplace or purchase "spark guards" at hearth shops.
While babyproofing a home, particularly with custom work, is an extra expense for parents, McNeill maintains that it can be considerably less expensive--both financially and emotionally--than the potential alternative.
"You go to the doctor one time for stitches and it's $100," he said. "I can do most homes for less than $100--nothing by comparison."
A typical job for McNeill might entail installation of about 32 drawer or cabinet latches and outlet covers, plus a refrigerator lock. Such a job, he added, might involve about two hours' labor and cost a client a total of $85. His biggest job to date amounted to $515--for an exceptionally large home.
McNeill, who has been babyproofing homes for about four years and is based in North Hollywood, offers clients free estimates. Lately, he's been so busy he no longer does estimates "out of my way."
The work grew out of his job as a salesclerk at the Juvenile Shop, a store selling cribs, strollers and other baby accessories, in Sherman Oaks. Whenever people would ask if he knew how they could get a crib repaired or latches installed, McNeill would volunteer.
"It just snowballed," he said, noting that he's "the kind of person who can basically do anything."
Though he skipped college, McNeill has also run a stereo store, worked as a car dealer and still maintains a profitable enterprise he created to manufacture breakaway bottles (bottles used in stunt work that break instantly with minimum impact).
But it is babyproofing that appeals to him more than any of his other business ventures.