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Wednesday, 24 May 2006 00:00

One mother’s struggle: Gibson hits dead-end in quest to balance childcare and work

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When Michelle Gibson showed up at her son’s second-grade classroom with balloons, ice cream and a decorated birthday cake signed “Love, Mommy” on a Friday afternoon last May, she told him that a bigger party was yet to come.

Gibson had agreed to work two 16-hour shifts at Mountain Trace nursing home in Jackson County that weekend, hoping to earn enough to rent a facility to throw Devin a party. Gibson worried that living in an Asheville homeless shelter for much of the past year had hurt Devin’s self-esteem and wanted to make him feel special.

But just 48 hours later, her 8-year-old son would die from heat exhaustion in Gibson’s car outside a nursing home while she attended to elderly patients inside. Gibson was charged with second-degree murder in her son’s death but was found not-guilty following a week-long jury trial.

Gibson said she had no one else to watch Devin that weekend and had few options: bring him along or not work. Following the trial, Gibson’s attorney, Randy Seago of Sylva, said the tragedy should serve as a wake up call to every politician that holds the pursestrings for childcare programs and social welfare.

“You need to get your priorities straight or else we are going to have a whole lot of children to bury,” Seago said. “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.”

During the trial, prosecutors were unable to refute the testimony from witnesses that depicted Gibson as a dedicated mother trying to provide for her children.

“As a parent I made a wrong judgment call and it cost my son’s life,” the 37-year-old Gibson told jurors during her testimony. “Even as I sit here right now I still can’t fathom my baby being gone. I can’t even imagine him not being here. I can’t imagine going to see his grave. That little boy brought me so much joy.”

Tears welled in the eyes of at least four jury members as she described doing CPR on her son and later rocking his dead body.

“I begged him to wake up. I said ‘You are just asleep, honey. Wake up,’” Gibson said. “I laid down on the back seat of my car and wrapped Devin in the blanket he had brought along with him, and I rocked him and I talked to him and told him he was such a good boy and that I was sorry.”

Gibson’s testimony degenerated into a stream-of-consciousness outpouring that even the prosecutor later described as heart-wrenching in his closing statements. While Gibson never denied blame for her son’s death, she fervently denied any malicious intent, a claim that clearly resonated with jurors in the end.

“I don’t how to live with the fact that I take responsibility for my son’s death. I can only ask God to be with me and care for me because I don’t know how I am going to make it without my son,” she told jurors. “My day will come and I will see him again.”

 

Finding her niche

Gibson has not led a storybook life. She was orphaned as a child and raised by an aunt in Florida. As a slow learner, her school years were spent in special education classes. Gibson followed a boyfriend to Western North Carolina where she got pregnant with a daughter, Adrienne, and began her path as a single mother. Several years later she had Devin.

Gibson had no friends or family to serve as a support network, but she did have one thing going for her: her trade. Gibson worked in the nursing home industry as a certified nursing assistant, a profession she loved.

But Gibson’s struggles with childcare plagued her ability to hold down a job and provide for her family. Gibson worked her way up through more elementary duties at the Brian Center in Weaverville until earning her CNA credentials in 2000. But she soon found herself hamstrung by a lack of childcare options.

The day shift started before daycares opened. And daycares were closed altogether on nights and weekends. Gibson worked the day shift but was habitually late after getting her children to either daycare or school. She also had a predicament on snow days, school holidays and anytime the daycare asked her to pick up her children, a common occurrence at the slightest sign of a child with a fever, tummy ache, or cough.

“She had no backup system,” Serena Frasure, Gibson’s former boss at the Brian Center, said of Gibson’s work dilemma

Gibson occasionally snuck both her children into the activity room at the nursing home and put them in front of the television or to sleep on the sofa while she worked. Frasure said Gibson’s children were well-behaved and the nursing home was willing to look the other way to keep Gibson.

“The patients loved her,” said Frasure. “When she wasn’t there, they all wanted to know where that little skinny girl was. As the staffing coordinator, if I could have her right this second I would take her in a minute. She was a wonderful CNA.”

Gibson’s work as a nurse was one of the few things that gave her a sense of self-worth other than caring for her children.

“I have always wanted to be a nurse,” Gibson wrote in a self-evaluation for a Salvation Army social worker more than a year ago. “Now I am a (nursing) assistant. I really love it. It makes me so happy.”

But Gibson eventually was fired from the Brian Center because her childcare dilemma interfered with her work, Frasure testified. Gibson later got a job on the night shift at Mars Hill Nursing Home where she snuck her children into the activity room and put them to sleep during her shift. But one of other staff told on her, and she had to stop. So Gibson moved to a morning shift, but again daycare wasn’t open by the time she had to be at work, once again making her habitually late for her job and putting her boss, Lisa McKinney, in a tough spot.

“I looked at the clock in the morning and hoped she’d hurry and get in there,” McKinney testified in court. “She worked well with the residents and laughed and would do anything they wanted. She spoiled them and would do anything they asked.”

McKinney and co-workers at Mars Hill described Gibson as a hard worker. McKinney said Gibson walked to work if her car broke down or was out of gas. But McKinney eventually had to let Gibson go as well.

“She had a hard time with someone helping her watch the kids,” McKinney said.

At one point Gibson sought help from a social worker at Devin’s school to find a daycare that would bridge the early morning gap.

“It is hard to get your young child to school if you have to be at work before they catch the bus,” Akia Bell, the social worker from Hall Fletcher Elementary school, testified in court.

When asked to describe the state of childcare in general, Bell called it “horrible” and cited long waiting lists.

 

Two steps back

When a full-time job nursing home job failed, Gibson signed on with STAT Nursing Services, an agency that farms out temporary workers to nursing homes needing help when short staffed. But scheduling through the agency was sporadic and undependable. The nursing agency could not guarantee Gibson the hours she needed.

With her paycheck in flux, Gibson couldn’t hold down an apartment. Her teenage daughter went to live with the daughter’s father, and Gibson and Devin moved in to the Salvation Army homeless shelter in Asheville.

Gibson’s hours improved and she soon saved enough money to sign a lease on an apartment. But it wasn’t long before she got behind on rent again and was evicted, landing in the homeless shelter a second time.

Zachary Comer, a counselor with the Affordable Housing Coalition who worked with Gibson, said she had a strong desire to work rather than succumb to welfare and food stamps. Comer has seen more than 100 clients — 95 percent whom he described as single mothers.

“The story she shared touched me as much as any person I’ve ever worked with,” Comer said. “Despite the fact she had been working, she had been faced with situations that left her homeless repeatedly.”

In addition to the childcare challenge, Gibson was trapped in a contract with STAT nursing agency as a temp worker. A nursing home that wanted Gibson full-time would have to buy-out the contract with STAT.

“She was kind of stuck in a contract that didn’t guarantee her hours,” Comer said.

Comer suggested public housing, which has a sliding rent scale, but Gibson told him no. The father of her older daughter, an Asheville police officer at the time, said he would fight for full custody of their daughter before allowing her to live in public housing. Gibson wanted her daughter back, so public housing wasn’t an option.

“She came across as a very hard-working woman who wanted to get back on her feet and get a home for her and Devin and hopefully get her older daughter back one day,” Akia Bell, a social worker at Devin’s school, testified during court.

Gibson was not quick to seek help, however. Comer had to convince Gibson she wasn’t a burden and helping people was his job.

“She repeatedly told me that she did not want me to have to take care of her, that she felt like she would be bothering me if she continued to call,” Comer said.

Other witnesses shared similar character assessments.

“Michelle wouldn’t take handouts,” said Lisa McKinney, Gibson’s boss at Mars Hill Nursing Home. “If I bought a meal for all the CNA’s, she would take it, but she wouldn’t take it just from me.”

Serena Frasure, Gibson’s boss at the Brian Center, said if Gibson borrowed 50 cents for the soda machine, she repaid Frasure a dollar the next day.

“That’s the kind of person she was,” Frasure said.

Gibson showed the same spirit after being evicted and going into homeless shelter.

“One of the first things she did was pay back the rent she owed,” said Comer. “In my experience that is a very unusual thing, for a person to decide that instead of using that money to save toward the next place or other basic needs they chose to repay their old landlord their rent.”

Comer said he got the sense Gibson carried a sense of guilt for not providing a home for her children. Comer’s suspicions were likely correct, judging by a self-evaluation Gibson filled out for a Salvation Army social worker who asked Gibson to list her top fears.

“Her top fear was not being there as a parent for her children,” testified Jamie Scott, a Salvation Army case worker assigned to Gibson.

The worksheet also asked Gibson to select adjectives from a list and circle the ones that applied to her. Gibson circled “worthless, nobody, life is empty, incompetent, guilty, anxious, cowardly, ugly, unattractive, loney, unloved, unconfident, full of regrets.” Gibson assigned herself only one positive attribute: “sympathetic.”

Gibson listed her favorite activity as spending time with her children.

 

Try, try again

Things began looking up for Gibson by the spring. Gibson had registered with two more agencies that place temporary workers at nursing homes, hoping between the three of them she would piece together a 40-hour week.

She had saved up for a reliable car, and the Salvation Army pitched in to cover the insurance, allowing her to take shifts she couldn’t get to before.

She had moved into an apartment with a friend from the homeless shelter, Michelle Burchfield, who had a 6-year-old son. In exchange, Gibson gave Burchfield rides and let her borrow the car for errands.

Comer detected optimism from Gibson for the first time in a conversation with her just one week before her son’s death.

“She told me she had recently saved up enough money to buy a car. She was excited about that and she was starting to save up for her housing costs she would incur,” Comer recounted.

Before the new car — a 2001 Ford Escort — Gibson had an old clunker that often broke down and would be out of commission until she could save the money to get it fixed. Devin shared his mother’s excitement about getting a new car, according to Jenny Cline, the assistant principal at Devin’s elementary school.

“He talked about it and was excited about it,” Cline told the jury. “He saw that as an improvement in their situation.”

The car cropped up in some of Devin’s schoolwork, which Cline shared with the jury.

“Today my mom is getting a new car and she said she is going to pick me up after school. It is going to be so cool. She said she would take me to the mall,” Devin wrote in one assignment.

Another week Devin wrote that his mother was taking him to the zoo and they would spend the night in a real hotel room. A few weeks before Devin’s death, he drew a picture of himself and his mother traveling down the road in their car with smiles on their faces and a sun in the sky.

“I will see you on my next adventure,” Devin wrote.

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