There are no perfect caregivers for children. No perfect parents, no perfect grandparents, no perfect babysitters, nannies or others.
Taking care of a child is an awesome and often challenging responsibility. Some of us don’t experience it until we pull the car out of the hospital parking ramp with our first baby on board. Others take it on far earlier, perhaps as teenagers, working for a few dollars an hour. No matter what the circumstances, it’s a truly humbling experience, knowing a vulnerable person’s life is in your hands.
Infants who are only a few weeks old are among the most vulnerable — and sometimes things go horribly wrong, as happened in Lakeville, Minnesota, last May.
Tina Louise Miller-Steiner, a 46-year-old grandmother who was on medication for depression, anxiety, and hypertension, was taking care of her six-week-old grandson, Evan, in her home. Despite a doctor’s orders not to consume alcohol while on medication, she drank two martinis and some wine when Evan was in her care. Becoming drowsy, she lay down on a bed, placing Evan next to her. Tragically, when Evan’s aunt awakened Miller-Steiner, Evan was not breathing. Miller-Steiner had fallen asleep on top of him and he suffocated.
Lakeville police, who investigated the death, pushed for a manslaughter charge. They pointed out that Miller-Steiner’s blood alcohol content almost four hours after the police were called was still 0.08 percent, the threshold for driving while intoxicated.
Longtime county attorney James Backstrom, who tends toward a hard-nosed approach, was unsure about the appropriate charge. He took the rather unusual step of convening a grand jury to seek citizen input, and the grand jury indicted Miller-Steiner in August on two counts of manslaughter.
On November 2, Miller-Steiner pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree manslaughter. In return, prosecutors dropped the second count. Judge Timothy Wermager sentenced Miller-Steiner to 10 years of probation and 45 days in jail. She must also pay restitution for the cost of Evan's funeral. Her probation conditions will include remaining sober and not being allowed to take care of children under 10 without supervision.
The sentence followed an emotional courtroom scene between mother and daughter. Davina Louise Miller, Evan’s mother, asked the judge for leniency for her mother.
After the sentencing, the county attorney remarked that in a case like this, the criminal justice system can inflict no punishment harder on the offender than what has already happened. That is probably true, but I wouldn’t describe the way this case was resolved as “mercy,” as the Star Tribune reporter did. Defense attorney Joe Friedberg was closer to the mark, I think, in calling it “equitable.”