A woman in Ohio could be imprisoned for 15 years after exposing her three small children to severe sunburn at a county fair last week.
Eve Hibbits, 31, appeared for a first court hearing yesterday. Prosecutors have charged her on three counts of endangerment in a highly unusual case. Ms Hibbits has already spent a week in jail.
She was at the fair with her three children, a two-year-old daughter and twin sons of 10 months, when an officer approached her because of the apparent distress of the children. "As soon as I looked at them, I could tell," said Sheriff Fred Abdalla of Jefferson County in eastern Ohio. "It looked like the children had been dipped in red paint. It was 95 degrees and they were literally baking."
The sheriff arrested the woman on the spot. "If I ignore this and something happens, then shame on me," he said. "There was no sunscreen or nothing on those children."
Ms Hibbits was offered bail on a surety of $15,000 (nearly £10,000) but could not raise it.
The three children were diagnosed with second-degree burns at a nearby medical centre. "We treated the minors for second-degree sunburn," a spokeswoman said. "It means any sunburn that is beginning to blister. They were blistering." After being treated with cold compresses and ointments, the children were released.
With the possibility of the children's mother going to prison, the state's child welfare office has been asked to consider their future. The sheriff said: "Children's Services is going to be involved. She just has to get a message sent to her that something has to be done."
America has witnessed recently an increasing number of cases in which the authorities have intervened against potential abuse by parents. Several mothers have been prosecuted for leaving their children in cars during heatwaves, with the windows closed. Legal experts said this was the first prosecution involving the exposure of children to sunburn.
Ms Hibbits's case will be closely watched by parents and civil rights lawyers across the country while schoolchildren are still on holiday and temperatures remain high.
The widespread use of sunscreen is fairly new. A few decades ago, making it a crime not to apply it to children would have been unthinkable. Parents have also been penalised because of the effects of their smoking near children. In 15 states, separated spouses have lost custody of their children because of their smoking habits.
In March, a minor was successful in suing to end compulsory visits to his mother on the ground that she exposed him to cigarette smoke, although she had never smoked in his presence. In the case, heard in Utica, New York State, a judge ordered the mother, identified as Johnita D, 39, to stop smoking altogether if she wanted to see her son again.
Her lawyer, Joan Shkane, denounced the ruling as intrusive. "Are we opening the door to urine tests now?Will he [the boy's father] be allowed to take air samples before the child visits?" Ms Shkane said.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies