‘Hope’ to light path for Melisha
by GREG KAYLOR, Banner Staff Writer
Oct 10, 2012 | 1762 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Friday will mark the 36th year since Melisha Gibson was found dead in her home on East Street. Thursday evening, hundreds of people will honor her memory by participating in the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) third annual Melisha Gibson “Light of Hope Moonlight Walk.”

The event will begin at 7 p.m. at the Cleveland/Bradley County Greenway near Raider Drive.

Melisha would have been 40 this year.

She died Oct. 12, 1976, at the hands of her stepfather and her mother, Ronald and Wanda Maddux, both of whom were charged, tried and convicted in the child’s death. Both have since died in prison.

Laxity in child abuse reporting was one of the issues which led to a change in laws in Tennessee and eventually across the nation.

“It seems like yesterday we were planning the first walk. Since we opened in 2008 and started the walk in 2010, the community has been there with us every step of the way in our fight against child abuse and neglect,” said CASA executive director Suzanne Wisdom.

The case gained national attention from news media outlets, including television and newswire services. The New Yorker Magazine also covered the story, according to Wisdom.

“The community quickly took action and within months the child abuse laws in the state of Tennessee and the rest of the nation changed. Everyone who was around in Cleveland in 1976 remembers the death of little Melisha Gibson,” Wisdom said.

CASA board members began organizing a walk in Melisha’s honor so her short life can be remembered and in the hope the laws of child abuse will continue to become better and stronger because of her.

During the three days prior to her death, Ronald Maddux reportedly beat Melisha when she became tired and wanted to rest. He made her march in a circle and denied her water or when she became thirsty, replaced it with hot sauce

This was the last days of her short life. The 4-year-old was found curled on the floor.

On Oct. 12, 1976, Sheriff Jim Ruth, former District Attorney General Richard Fisher and others observed her body inside the home after being notified of her death.

She had died from the abuse.

“In 1976, the court system was much different than it is today; no one was able to be that voice for Melisha in court. Today, we are fortunate to have CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Bradley County to represent the best interest of abused and neglected children in the courts,” Wisdom said.

The CASA program trains volunteers from the community. After training, the volunteer is appointed by a juvenile court judge to investigate and determine the needs of abused and neglected children who are petitioned into the court system.

The CASA volunteer makes independent recommendations to the court for services, which focus on the needs of the child and advocates for a permanent and safe home for each child within the shortest time possible.

“Since 2008, CASA of Bradley County has been the voice for over 300 children in the court system,” she added.

The program is now expanding into Polk County under Wisdom’s direction.

“Every year, thousands of children in Tennessee are involved in court cases, although not one of them committed a single crime. Many of these children are the victims of child abuse, abandonment or neglect. They feel betrayed, alone and afraid. Some face life-threatening circumstances at home, others are ignored and neglected by the very people who should care most about them,” Wisdom explained.

“These children are thrust into a judicial system that is overwhelming even to many adults. Too often, their small voices go unheard by the courts and state agencies. These children desperately need a caring, compassionate person who will advocate solely for them — for their safety, security, and happiness,” added Wisdom.

Individuals, schools, civic groups and churches all participate in the walk which has grown to appropriately 500 walkers during the past three years.

Registration begins at 6 p.m. and the walk will get under way at 7 p.m.

The Cleveland High School choir will perform at the event. The Rev. Rusty Azbill of First Baptist Church is slated as the guest speaker.