Shift in mother's routine turned deadly, attorney says
by Rachael Brown
rbrown@annistonstar.com
Aug 13, 2013 | 26690 views |  0 comments | 67 67 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Katherine Papke is shown with her children at the 2013 Woodstock 5K in Anniston. Papke was recently indicted in the death of her 4-month-old son, Bennett Owen Smith, who she is seen holding in this photo. (Submitted photo)
Katherine Papke is shown with her children at the 2013 Woodstock 5K in Anniston. Papke was recently indicted in the death of her 4-month-old son, Bennett Owen Smith, who she is seen holding in this photo. (Submitted photo)
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Katherine Elizabeth Papke had a lot on her mind Friday.

Her morning routine was thrown off and she was worried about things at work, where the day turned busy.

It was only after stepping out into the parking lot after skipping lunch that Papke, a single mother of three, including 4-month old Bennett Owen Smith, realized she’d made a horrible mistake, according to her attorney, Jim Sturdivant.

Sturdivant, who spoke to The Star by phone today, shared for the first time Papke’s account of the events that led to the death of her infant son. She’d left him in the car when she went into work Friday at the McClellan Readiness Center, thinking she’d already dropped him off at daycare.

Papke was charged Friday with manslaughter and with leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle, under a new state law that took effect Aug. 1.

Papke, Sturdivant said, had just returned from maternity leave to her job as an active-duty U.S. Army soldier assigned to the Alabama National Guard’s 167th Theater Sustainment Command at McClellan. Papke has served full-time in the Army since 1998, he said.

The lawyer said Papke, who holds the rank of sergeant first class, was deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. She served between six and 15 months during those tours of duty, according to Sturdivant.

Papke was still trying to create a routine, Sturdivant said, after her two daughters, 8 and 7, began school last Wednesday at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School.

Before Friday, Sturdivant said, the two girls walked to the school and Papke put her baby, whom the family called Bo, in a stroller so she could run with him to daycare. The infant spent his days at the McClellan Child Development Center, within walking distance of the McClellan Readiness Center on Goode Road, where Papke’s unit is based.

Sturdivant said Papke was stressed by the Army’s weight rules, which required her to lose 40 pounds after giving birth. The mother was trying to incorporate a pre-work run into her morning routine so she could keep her job, the lawyer said.

On Friday morning, Papke’s two daughters weren’t ready in time to walk to school, Sturdivant said. So instead, Papke and her three children got into her minivan, and she drove the girls to school.

Sturdivant said that in Papke’s mind, she dropped her baby off at daycare, as she did every day, and then went to work around 8 a.m.

Around 2 o’clock Papke walked out to the parking lot of the Readiness Center and discovered her mistake.

“She believed in her mind that she had dropped off Bo at the daycare until she realized the horrible reality that she had not dropped him off,” Sturdivant said.

Shared story

Papke’s story has much in common with the experiences of many parents in such cases, according to the director of a child-safety advocacy group.

The stress of being a new parent could easily cause someone to be less alert than they normally would, according to Amber Rollins, director and volunteer manager of Kids and Cars, based in Kansas City, Mo.

Rollins said the combination of a mother not getting enough sleep, worrying about work, changes in a normal routine and stress can be a recipe for disaster.

It’s common for parents who take their children to daycare every day to find themselves on autopilot, she said.

“They get to work. They can remember dropping the baby off at daycare. They picture it in their mind and then they go to their car and that’s where the baby is,” Rollins said.

Rollins equated the situation to someone who takes a pill every day. It becomes routine, she said, and then one day they ask themselves “Did I do that?” Rollins said people’s brains fill in the spaces by remembering a previous time when they did the same thing, which makes the answer to that question, “Yes, I did.”

Debating prosecution

Papke is the first person charged by Anniston police under a new state law making it a crime to leave a child unattended in a motor vehicle, and likely the first in the state charged under that law in the death of a child.

The Amiyah White Motor Vehicle Act, named for a Mobile toddler who died in a van in 2005, was passed by the Legislature this spring and took effect Aug. 1.

Sturdivant said he believes what happened to his client is a public health issue, not a criminal one.

“My client is not a criminal. She made a mistake, and she’s going to live with that mistake for the rest of her life,” Sturdivant said.

Sturdivant filed a motion today to dismiss the charge of leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle, citing that the law applies to licensed daycare providers or child care services, not a child’s parent.

Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh said he cannot comment on a pending case, but said his office will address those issues in court.

Sturdivant believes prosecuting the grieving mother is “inappropriate and a rush to judge her.”

Since the death of her infant, Papke’s two daughters have been in the custody of the state, Sturdivant said.

Papke doesn’t have family who live nearby, Sturdivant said, and she has no one to help her raise her daughters.

“I just don’t know that criminalizing the situation if it’s an honest mistake by a hurried and distracted single mom solves anything,” Sturdivant said.

Staff Writer Rachael Brown: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RBrown_Star.

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