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Wednesday, 31 May 2006 00:00

Gibson case highlights larger problems

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When the jury came back with a not guilty verdict in the case against Michelle Gibson, many across the country let out a collective sigh of relief. Gibson had been charged with second-degree murder after her 8-year-old son died from heat exhaustion in a car while she worked a double shift at a Sylva nursing home.

It’s all-too-evident that Gibson made a tragic error in judgment that contributed to her son’s death. But there was no malice. She left the car unlocked and the windows cracked. Now that she’s been acquitted, however, it provides an opportunity to step back, study the case and draw some conclusions that, in the end, could help other children and their working parents from replaying a similar tragedy.

This case should mollify some of those who constantly complain about the inadequacies of our court system. In this instance, the system worked. The jury considered the evidence, weighed the legal realities of the case as the attorneys had presented them, and found Gibson not guilty. To almost all observers it seemed the right call.

The most telling outcome from this case, though, is its indictment of the ridiculous state of childcare in this region and the country. In almost all instances these days, if there are two parents in a family both are holding down jobs. Our society has tried to adapt to this reality, but change has been slow. There are still waiting lists at nearly all subsidized daycare centers, just as there are waiting lists at the high-priced centers that serve upper middle-class families. Every working family without relatives able to help is forced to make tough decisions that usually include tightening the budget.

Now imagine what it’s like for the working poor. Gibson actually turned down a raise because it would have pushed her meager salary to a point where she would not have qualified for subsidized childcare. Some employers tried to turn a blind eye to her habit of sneaking her young children into the workplace, but there were times when the choice for Gibson was to bring her children and face the potential loss of her job or just not show up for work because she did not have childcare. Gibson, by all accounts, wanted to work and support herself.

The sorry state of daycare in this country is something politicians have to address. Unfortunately, we live in an era when the working poor are viewed as somehow deserving of their fate. Well-to-do, stay-at-home moms can afford to put their children in part-time daycare so they can have mornings out to go to the gym or have coffee with friends, but women like Gibson are forced to sneak out of the workplace to tend to an 8-year-old who was spending 16 hours in a car. That’s an outrage.

This case highlights the tragedy that can occur when childcare is not available, but the working poor face similar situations finding health care, affordable housing and other basic needs. These risk factors, when compounded, make for an unsafe and unhealthy environment for too many children in North Carolina and in this country. Until our lawmakers see that these issues all go hand-in-hand, that you can’t solve one without addressing them all, tragedies like this will continue to occur.

Gibson’s attorney, Randy Seago, summed it up after the trial: “You need to get your priorities straight or else we are going to have a whole lot of children to bury. Unless the state puts childcare at the top of their list this is going to happen again and again and again. There is a terrible human cost and a terrible human consequence.”

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