.She had taken her children for a fun day out at the county fair. But when police saw three of Eve Hibbits’s youngsters in their pushchairs, she was arrested – because they were sunburned.
Now – after more than a week in jail after failing to raise £10,000 bail – she could face a 15-year prison sentence on charges of endangering her children, who have been taken into care.
Last night, her arrest brought protests from civil rights observers and has startled justice officials – who say they have never heard of a similar case.
But Sheriff Fred Abdalla, who put 31-year-old Mrs Hibbits in jail, said he had no doubt he had done the right thing.
‘As soon as I looked at the children, I could tell,’ he said yesterday. ‘It looked like they had been dipped in red paint. It was 95 degrees and they were literally baking. Their skin was blistering.’
Mrs Hibbits had taken four of her children to the fairground in Steubenville, Ohio, to see their father operating an amusement ride.
During the baking hot day, a sheriff’s deputy noticed that the three younger children – a two-year-old girl and ten-month-old twin boys – were distressed and crying.
He radioed in a report to his superiors saying the mother had been walking around for hours and the youngsters looked sick.
Sheriff Abdalla said he went to the fairground and questioned Mrs Hibbits. ‘She seemed kind of slow,’ he added. ‘She didn’t seem aware of sunscreen. I had no choice but to arrest Mrs Hibbits. If I ignore this and something happens, then shame on me.’
He said one of the children had a collapsed lung through excessive crying. He left the fourth child, aged 11, at the fairground while he drove the younger children to a medical centre in Steubenville.
There, the youngsters were treated with cold compresses and released the same day. Medical centre spokesman Keith Murdock said they had second-degree sunburn.
‘Most people who get sunburned get second- degree sunburn,’ he added. ‘It means any sunburn that is beginning to blister. They were blistering. The ones that we usually get here are far worse and include third-degree burns and heatstroke.’
The 11-year-old was later picked up at the fairground, where she was crying because she could not find her parents.
Sheriff Abdalla charged Mrs Hibbits with three felony counts of endangering the children, each of which can carry a five-year jail sentence. He said prosecutors would decide what kind of penalty to seek.
‘Children’s services are going to be involved,’ he added. ‘Whatever happens, the mother has to get the message that something has to be done.’
A lawyer for the local Jefferson County public defender’s department, said: ‘It seems outrageously excessive treatment and ludicrous to threaten a mother with such excessive jail time.
‘That time is more in keeping with rape or bank robbery. Clearly the woman is at fault, but she can be helped by the community services.’
Last night, Mrs Hibbits was expected to be released on bail, after which the case will be sent to a higher court.