Who Will Speak Up for Murdered Children?

"When their young are threatened, mockingbirds take action," but in the case of Karly Sheehan, there was "a silence of mockingbirds," says author Karen Spears Zacharias. (Photo by Stephen Savage)

In the decade that American troops have been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, 6,397 soldiers have been killed. During that same time, 20,000 American children have died from child abuse and nobody is talking about it, author and journalist Karen Spears Zacharias says. “It’s not making the headline news. There’s no national policy. There’s no outrage from the public.” In her gripping new book, A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder, Zacharias tells the story of three-year-old Karly Sheehan, who was suffering horrific abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend while investigators targeted her father, David Sheehan, as her abuser and medical professionals misread tell-tale signs of abuse. Karly was murdered in 2005. In 2008, Karly’s Law was enacted in Oregon. It mandates that children who exhibit signs of abuse receive medical attention from a specially trained medical professional within 48 hours. In recognition of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, UrbanFaith talked to Zacharias about the alarming national tragedy that her book was written to highlight. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

UrbanFaith: Often the news media fails to report with equal zeal on stories like Karly’s if the victim is a person of color. Although her mother is biracial, Karly was a fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed child. Do you think this book would have been published if she wasn’t?

Karen Spears Zacharias: Karly is beautiful. She is that iconic blond, blue-eyed darling. There’s no question in my mind that there’s a bias toward people of color. I live in a community that is 40 percent Hispanic. If this had been a Hispanic child I was writing about, I probably never would have never gotten this book published. There’s an inherent resistance to these kinds of stories. When such stories involve children of color the resistance is even greater, the biases even more profound.

I wonder if this murder had involved a child of color, would the media have been as drawn to it? Would the community-at-large have related to it? Would legislators have been so quick to respond with a law to protect other children? We are a media-driven culture and the white child plays to a broader audience base. Elected officials are keenly aware of that. I know Rep. Sara Gelser, who sponsored Karly’s Law, so I know it would not have mattered to her. I just think she would have had a much more difficult task had this been a child of color.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 28.1 percent of child abuse fatalities were African Americans, 16.6 percent were Hispanic, and 43.6 percent were white. What, if anything, do these statistics tell us?

A tragic death that led to change: beloved child Karly Sheenan. (Photo courtesy of David Sheehan)

Oftentimes in talking about the rate of child abuse among minority groups, they’re looking at percentage per capita. They’re saying it’s higher in those groups, because you’re dealing with smaller populations. In reality, because their population is larger, the bulk of child abuse is perpetuated by whites. The National Children’s Alliance says there is a certain segment of child abuse that goes hand-in-hand with poverty. We know that when families are under economic stress, as they have been since 2008, child abuse rates increase.

Has that happened in the past four years?

In the counties I’m dealing with in Oregon and Washington, there have seen steady—if not increasing—numbers, but it depends upon the population and the economic development of the community. Where you have struggles financially, you see an increase. For instance, in Benton County, Washington, their abuse center treated 500-some clients last year. That’s been pretty steady for them for the past few years, but they have a steady employment base. In a community like Linn-Benton County, Oregon, where Karly died, since Karly’s Law has been enacted, they have seen a huge jump.

Is that because Karly’s Law mandates better screening?

They’re not exactly sure of all the reasons. They do think that Karly’s Law plays into that. There’s no question that it puts parameters around the reporting, but here’s the other statistic we’re puzzling over: In 2009, 13 children died in the state of Oregon as a result of child abuse and in 2010, 22 children died as a result of child abuse. That’s after Karly’s Law. So, maybe we’re not doing a better job reporting. That’s part of the problem. We have no national policy that addresses child abuse, which helps explain why we have the highest abuse rate of any industrialized nation. It’s not important to us.

How did Karly’s Law come about?

Rep. Sara Gelser was a mother and representative in Linn-Benton County, where Karly was killed. She was reading about this in the headlines every single day. After the case closed, she and Joan Demarest, the prosecutor in the case, who is also a mother, got together and worked to push this law through. The medical director testified that if she had seen Karly, she would have known early on that this was child abuse, but the average doctor gets four hours of training in medical school for child abuse. So they don’t know what to look for and they’re busy. I’ve had police tell me that usually child abuse work in law enforcement is done by rookies because nobody else wants to do it. It’s time consuming, it’s paperwork, and it’s court. So we have Karly’s Law in the state of Oregon, but part of the problem, in the county where I live, is that we don’t have a trained medical professional. There is no doctor or nurse in this whole county who can assess child abuse. So, when we have children that are suspected to be victims of child abuse, they have to be transported to another community up to three hours away.

This is your fifth book, and even though you’ve written a memoir about your father’s death in Vietnam, you’ve said this one is the most exhausting to talk about. Why?

The book about my father was emotionally hard for me. It was a personal journey. This book is combating evil. That’s a completely different kind of exhaustion. I’m bringing to light something that is really dark, that people don’t talk about. Even atheists and agnostics will admit that there’s a sort of demonic evil to child abuse. When I’m speaking, I’m very aware of the importance of helping every individual out there understand the need to be a voice for a child.

What should people look for in the children they come in contact with to recognize signs of abuse?

In Karly’s case, her day care provider did a terrific job of noticing. She was paying attention. Karly’s first sign was that she was more sleepy than usual during the day. She became more whiny. Of those 20,000 kids we’ve lost in the past 10 years, 80 percent of them are ages four and under. These children are being targeted in a way, because either they don’t have the verbal skills to identify their attackers, or they do have the verbal skills and they won’t tell. I asked a medical director why children don’t tell. She said, “Because they love their mommies.” And so, if an abuser tells a child, “If you say anything, you’ll never see your mommy again,” they will never tell.

People who are abusing children aren’t wailing on them in Wal-Mart. Child abuse is insidious. Do you have a neighbor, a friend, or a family member who is constantly bullying their child or perpetually ignoring that child? If so, have you spoken up? Stopping child abuse means living with our feet in the mud. It’s messy, but we have to get involved. We have to be better neighbors. Children are dying.