Shana Suggs: Oklahoma Mom Needs Parent Education, Not Incarceration, for Lice Treatment Tragedy

Parents aren’t allowed to make mistakes anymore. They wind up in jail. That’s what happened to Shana Suggs, a 25 year-old Oklahoma woman who attempted to treat her five-year-old daughter’s hair lice with gasoline last January.

According to news reports, Suggs’ efforts with the antiquated home remedy turned tragic when gasoline fumes ignited a bathroom space heater, causing second and third degree burns over 60% of the girl’s body. Suggs also received burns.

Now being held at the Pittsburg County jail on $25,000 bond, Suggs faces charges of child abuse by injury. A preliminary hearing is set for Aug. 16.

The truth is, I’m afraid for Suggs. I’m afraid for any parent today who makes an error in judgment.

Apparently, the county prosecutor thinks the devastating accident isn’t enough for the family. Suggs needs to be punished. Retributive justice.  But won’t she regret what she did every day for the rest of her life? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone involved if she received parent education instead of incarceration? What this woman needs, for pity’s sake, is mentoring.

The worse thing about Sugg’s case is that while behind bars she is unable to be a source of comfort to her daughter at a time when she is needed most. Sugg’s four other children must feel abandoned as well – adding even more emotional trauma to their lives. After extensive treatment, the burned child is currently in state custody, living with relatives.

It seems parents today are viewed in a more distrustful, less forgiving, light than they used to be. There’s little  tolerance for mistakes. Why is that? I’m not talking about child abusers, parents who come home drunk and beat their kids or lock them in a closet without food.  I mean moms and dads trying to do their best for their children.

When my children were little, we lived in the high desert of New Mexico. All my kids played in the arroyo, a place where after it rains in the mountains, a six-foot wall of water can come barreling through like a freight train, carrying off everything in its path in a matter of moments, even when the sun is shining. The two boys would take off for hours and tromp up into the hills. No cell phones.  Years later when they told me of their adventures, I was shocked. If I had known where they were going,  I would not have allowed it. But I did let them go.

I never thought myself a negligent mom. Yet if something had happened to one of them, I would have been beyond grief.

In 1986, the local newspapers ran a heart-wrenching story. A five-year-old girl named Sage Volkman had gone camping at a New Mexico lake with her father and brother. In the morning, her father left her in the camper snuggled in her sleeping bag while he went fishing with his son.  Reports say the heater had been left on and ignited the camper, melting Sage’s sleeping bag. Barking dogs alerted the boy to the smoke. The father, Michael Volkman, ran back and pulled his daughter out. But fire had ravaged Sage’s body, causing her to lose her nose, eyelids, chin, ear, and hands. She suffered fourth and fifth degree burns over 70% of her body. Sage’s mother was not there at the time, but at her job teaching kindergarten.

Newpaper articles reported that the Volkmans’ church-family rallied around them with prayer and support during Sage’s lengthy hospitalizations and numerous surgeries. Their community built a new home for them. The building materials used in their old house were not sufficiently dust-free for a recovering burn victim.

If anyone suggested her father should be jailed for what happened, I never heard about it. Terrible mistakes happen. I cannot imagine Sage surviving all she did, all the reconstructive surgery, the painful exercise, without her parents at her side offering constant love and encouragement.  I read in a follow-up news story that she went on to earn a Ph.D. and now counsels burn victims.

In another sad case, a young Columbus, OH, mother left two tots asleep in their beds while she went out to meet friends at a nearby convenience store. Since she could not pay the electric bill, her power had been shut off, and she lit candles in the children’s room. That night she was on suicide watch, both babies dead.

I remember the Columbus Dispatch photo of the anguished young woman, standing outside and being comforted by her own mother. I don’t remember any mention of handcuffs.

In his 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story, “Fatal Distraction,” Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten interviewed parents whose children died after being left in hot cars.  None of the parents were successfully prosecuted.

So how is Shana Suggs’ mistake any worse? Must we persist in believing that people don’t learn from their mistakes? That we need to punish them further for their terrible loss?

We need to stop being micro-managers of the human conscience. This new wave of societal self-righteousness does not trust the individual and offers little or no empathy. For such people, the adage,  “There but by the grace of God go I,” does not apply.

What parents need is education. And freedom to make decisions and learn from their mistakes. These cases are tragedies, to be  sure. But they’re not crimes. Put it in perspective. No parent wants to forget a baby in a hot car or disfigure a lice-ridden child with flames.

If the lack of compassion and empathy proliferates, parents will become so paranoid they won’t want to take an injured child to the ER.

How can parents function like that? How can anyone?

We can’t go back and change what happened to Shana Suggs and her daughter. We can, however, advocate for parent education. We can get involved with child advocacy organizations, like CASA, or donate to programs that offer parents better choices, such as the Nurturing Parenting Program.

And we can let go of the craziness that drives us to live day after day without margin.

And that, I think, is enough.  Now let Suggs go home to her family. FFG

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *