Video: Santa under scrutiny

By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 11/21/2007 8:10:37 AM ET 2007-11-21T13:10:37

Charities across the nation are staggering under the burden of screening donations for recalled toys, overwhelming their small volunteer staffs and leading some to stop accepting or distributing toys altogether as Christmas approaches.

The Salvation Army maintains a list of hundreds of toys that have been recalled or are suspected of being laced with lead. Volunteers must spend hours cross-checking every donated toy against the list, taking them away from service programs and fund-raising drives.

“It’s a tip on this, a wheel on that, a little sign on such and such, the bumper on that,” said Roger Miller of the Salvation Army branch in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “They go nuts trying to get it all done as it is.”

The Salvation Army in Charlotte, N.C., had planned to give away at least 10,000 stockings filled with toys, but it says it faces a severe shortage.

“Our auxiliary this summer ordered items to put in those stockings, and more than half of them were recalled,” said Shelley Spillios of the Charlotte affiliate. “We are scrambling to find what we can put in the stockings to take the place of the recalled items.”

In Boise, Idaho, 15 Marines were detailed to sift through 27,787 toys collected by the Corps’ Toys for Tots campaign.

“We are taking every precaution we can at this point to make sure that every toy is touched and that we grab every recalled toy that is donated to make sure it doesn’t get into the hands of one of the children we’re trying to help this Christmas,” Marine Maj. Ron Storer said.

‘You don’t know what you’re getting’
So far this year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued more than 60 recalls affecting more than 25 million individual toys, most of them for lead contamination, the agency said Tuesday.

Screening toys is a chore. Because they often don’t come in original packaging, volunteers must scrutinize them for product numbers that might be on a list of recalled items.

And if a toy is on the list, the agency can’t discard it and move on. Because lead is a hazardous material, federal disposal regulations come into play. The toy must be sent back to the manufacturer.

Many charities are dipping into donations meant for other uses to buy toys so they won’t disappoint children this Christmas. But other agencies say that the task is too daunting and that they are giving up.

“You don’t know what you’re getting, you really don’t. You hear it on the news, what’s been recalled, but how do you know the other toy is not good?” asked Debbie Etnyre, a Salvation Army manager in Fort Wayne, Ind.

“So we just throw them all away,” she said.

No toys for some kids
Many Goodwill Industries affiliates have adopted similar policies, among them local chapters in Colorado, Wisconsin, Hawaii and Massachusetts.

“Despite our great efforts, we are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the growing list of recalled toys. Until we can guarantee that recalled toys will not reach our shelves, we have made the decision that we can no longer sell toys in our retail outlets,” Goodwill Industries of Milwaukee said in a statement.

So far, however, the nation’s largest toy-distribution program is sticking to its holiday traditions. The Salvation Army of Greater New York kicked off its annual drive to collect 100,000 thousand toys Tuesday in Manhattan, joined by “Law & Order” star Sam Waterston.

“Kids are going to want toys regardless of any lists or warnings,” said John Hodgson of the agency’s national headquarters. “We want to be able to provide safe toys.”

NBC’s Roseanne Colletti in New York and NBC affiliates WNYT in Rochester, N.Y.; WCNC in Charlotte, N.C.; KRIS in Corpus Christi, Texas,; WESH in Orlando, Fla.; KTVB in Boise, Idaho; and WEEK in Peoria, Ill., contributed to this report.

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