How a system to protect children couldn't save this little girl from the abuse that finally killed her
By Gwyneth Gibby
The call 911 dispatchers hate the most is, "Child not breathing."
On June 3, 2005, at about 1:45 p.m., a frantic Sarah Sheehan made that call. She had arrived at her boyfriend's house to find her daughter, 3-year-old Karly, lying limp on the floor of a bedroom. Karly's left eye was swollen shut with a large bruise. Her right eye was open and fixed. She was not breathing.
Police and paramedics tried to revive Karly for 45 minutes but failed. Doctors at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center pronounced her dead at 2:40 p.m.
The nurses and doctors in the emergency room were shocked at the extent of Karly's injuries. Dr. Carol Chervenak, an expert on child abuse who examined Karly after her death, counted 60 injuries all over Karly's tiny body, from her head to the bottoms of her feet.
Karly had been beaten to death.
Corvallis police detectives immediately began to investigate. David Sheehan, Karly's father, and his ex-wife, Sarah, were interviewed separately. Sarah's boyfriend, Shawn Field, who had been at home when Karly died, accompanied police to the Law Enforcement Center and remained there for hours while detectives tried to put the pieces together.
There was an extra element of tragedy in Karly's death. The Department of Human Services still had an open case involving Karly. According to their files she was possibly the victim of child abuse. Karly's babysitter had called DHS the previous November to say Karly was losing her hair and saying her "daddy" hit her.
Even after Field was tried and convicted of murder in Karly's case, questions haunted those familiar with the matter: Could her death have been prevented? Are there loopholes in the child-abuse investigation process through which her life slipped?
To try to answer those questions, the Gazette-Times interviewed many of the principals in Karly's case and reviewed the testimony and evidence in Field's murder trial. The review shows the difficulties inherent in investigating allegations of child abuse, and it spotlights gaps in the system that officials are trying to plug.
The story starts with another phone call, this one seven months before Karly's death.
Nov. 16, 2004
It was lunchtime at day care when Delynn Zoller heard the words she hated to hear. They came from a little girl named Karla. Everyone called her Karly. She was not yet 3 years old and she had been coming to Zoller's day care since June. Zoller knew Karly as a happy, spunky girl.
She was playful, smart and precociously verbal. So when Karly spoke out of the blue at lunch, Zoller was taken aback.
"My dad hits me all the time," Karly said.
"What?" Zoller asked, stunned.
"Yes, he hits me on the head all the time," Karly said.
"Daddy David?" Zoller asked.
Karly's parents, David and Sarah Sheehan, both in their late 20s, were divorced. But as far as Zoller knew they had an amicable relationship and shared custody of Karly. True, there had been signs lately that all was not well with Karly. She normally had long, blond hair, but in the last week of October Sarah had brought her to day care with her hair cut short. Sarah said she had French-braided Karly's hair and it became so matted overnight that she had to cut it off. After that Karly seemed to lose hair gradually until there were balding patches.
She had also been sleeping for hours and hours at day care as though she were exhausted. Zoller had also noticed Karly wasn't crying as much for her mother lately. She was focused on her father and cried for him all the time.
"You need to talk to my daddy," Karly told Zoller.
"What should I say?" Zoller asked.
"You need to tell him, 'No!'" Karly said. "He needs to stop hitting me."
By 4:15 p.m., Zoller was on the phone to the DHS Child Abuse hotline. A DHS screener, Anita Parker, wrote up a report. While she was on the phone with Zoller, Parker could hear Karly in the background ask when her daddy was coming to pick her up.
"When (Zoller) stated to Karly, 'Oh honey, your mommy is coming to get you tonight,'" wrote the DHS caseworker, "Karly was then heard begin to sob severely & say repeatedly to (Zoller) 'I want my daddy, I want my daddy.'"
The report said Zoller had major concerns for Karly but didn't know what needed to be done.
David Sheehan is Irish. He has sandy hair and Karly had inherited his blue eyes. He worked in computers, having worked for Hewlett-Packard in Corvallis and then gotten a job at Flextronics where he traveled more often, sometimes to the Far East.
Sarah Sheehan is from northeast Oregon. She was pretty with bright brown eyes and a sweet smile. They met at the Peacock in Corvallis early in 1997. After a slow courtship, with David moving back to Ireland and working in other parts of Europe, they married in October 1998.
Karly was born Jan. 4, 2002. By summertime, though, David and Sarah had separated. Their divorce became final in the summer of 2004, when Karly was 2½. Although there was no formal child support agreement, David was generous with Sarah and spent whatever was needed to maintain a good lifestyle for Karly.
That night, after Zoller called DHS, Karly went home with Sarah.
The next day, during breakfast at day care, Karly cried again for her daddy. She slept for most of the day. Zoller talked to Parker again and also to Matt Stark, the DHS case worker assigned to investigate. Zoller told Stark that Karly's parents had made an appointment to see her doctor that afternoon at 4:45. Stark made arrangements to meet the Sheehans there.
Dr. Shanika DeSoyza had been seeing Karly since birth.
"She was a great little girl," DeSoyza said. "She had a great personality - mischievous. She liked to crawl around the exam area and mess with the medical supplies."
DeSoyza thought Karly was clingy and subdued that day. She also had a small bruise on her right cheek, hair loss on the crown of her head and some discoloration there. It could have been a bruise. DeSoyza ordered blood tests.
At the doctor's office, Stark spoke with David, Sarah and Karly together. He noted Karly stayed close to David.
"When she was not occupying herself," Stark wrote in his report, "Karly sought the attention and contact of her father exclusively."
David told Stark it seemed someone was pulling Karly's hair out, and he didn't think it was Karly.
Sarah said she thought Karly was more anxious lately because of her parents' separation. Sarah had recently moved in with her new boyfriend, Shawn Field. But she didn't think the move was causing Karly anxiety because she thought the situation with Field and his 8-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, was "very stable."
Stark asked Sarah if Karly was ever alone with Field. David looked her right in the eye as she answered. She said no.
Stark asked to interview Karly alone. Even with a nurse present, Karly wouldn't make eye contact with Stark and began to cry and ask for her daddy. So Stark abandoned the interview.
The next day, the case was discussed by the Child Abuse Response Team, CART. The team includes representatives from DHS, the District Attorney's office, Corvallis Police and the Benton County Sheriff's Office, ABC (All Because of Children) House, the juvenile department and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a volunteer group that offers court advocates for juveniles. The team agreed that Stark should try again to interview Karly, this time in a comfortable setting for her at Zoller's day care.
There was one more thing Zoller had told Stark that was not discussed at the CART meeting - Zoller said David had expressed some concerns about Sarah's new boyfriend, Field.
"When Karly has talked about her dad hitting her," Stark wrote in his report, "(Zoller) wonders if it is her father or the boyfriend she is talking about."
Karly had told Zoller that Field spanked her sometimes.
"Ms. Zoller believes the mother works at night and does not know who watches Karly," Stark noted in his report.
Stark's attempt to interview Karly at day care was unsuccessful. Karly again cried and asked for her daddy.
A week later Karly's blood tests came back. They were all normal. Child abuse expert Dr. Carol Chervenak, from ABC House, told Stark that because medical reasons for the hair loss had been ruled out, that left "inflicted loss." Someone was pulling out Karly's hair. But who?
David called to tell Stark he and Sarah agreed Karly would only spend one night a week at Field's house. David thought Karly was better after spending the night at his own house.
Stark checked Field out for a criminal record - and found one hit, a case from 2001 in which Field's wife, Eileen, had called the police because Field had pushed her and threatened to have her killed. No arrest was made and no charges were filed.
To get a better sense of what life was like at the Field residence, Stark and detective Karin Stauder, who was assigned to the case, went to interview Kaitlyn Field at school. Kaitlyn seemed introspective to Stark. But she was in good health and there was nothing about her that caused him to be concerned. She told Stauder and Stark that when she or Karly did something wrong, they were sent to the corner. Sometimes they got spanked. She never saw anyone pull Karly's hair, although sometimes Kaitlyn's dad would pull Kaitlyn's hair playfully.
When Stauder called Field to let him know they had talked to Kaitlyn, she asked if she could talk to him freely about Karly. He said, Yes.
"I asked Shawn if Karly has ever mentioned anyone hitting her," Stauder reported, "and he said she has told him, 'My daddy hit me.' Shawn asked Karly where and he said she pointed to her head, her back and her nose."
He also told Stauder he had seen Karly pull her own hair and tell herself she was bad. He felt Sarah sent Karly to the corner too often but didn't think she was abusing Karly. He thought David was strict, but not excessively so.
When Stauder reported back to Stark after this conversation, she said she needed to talk to David. Up to this point, Stark had done all the interviewing of the Sheehans.
In the meantime, Zoller reported that Karly was doing better. She had been spending more time with her dad and was less clingy and didn't cry as much. She was playing more with the other kids at day care.
"She attributes the change to being around mom's boyfriend less," Stark reported.
On Dec. 6, David dropped Karly off at day care. Then he met Stauder and Stark at the DHS office in Corvallis.
To David their message was clear: "We are investigating you for child abuse."
"They flat-out told me," David said. "That was a very sobering thing to hear."
Stauder said she was tough on David. When she told him Karly said he was hitting her, David was visibly upset - he told the detective that he didn't know why she would say that.
"Do you suspect Sarah is abusing Karly?" Stauder asked.
"Absolutely not," David said.
Nor, he said, did he have any reason to think Field was. David said he had seen Karly pull her own hair once, when she had a temper tantrum once in November 2004.
David offered to take a polygraph. Stauder and Stark noted his willingness in their reports, but David thought they were dismissive.
"They said, 'A lot of people offer to take polygraphs, but they don't follow through.'"
Police did give David a polygraph, but not till June 2005.
At the end of the interview they told David they weren't sure what to conclude. The three possible findings for the investigation were Unfounded for Abuse, Founded and Unable to Determine.
"They were on the fence between Unfounded and Indeterminate," David recalled. "They said, 'We cannot tell if you are doing it.'"
Sarah met with Stauder and Stark the next day.
"Sarah said David is a terrific dad," Stauder reported, "doesn't think he is hitting Karly, doesn't know why she would say he did."
Sarah also didn't think Field was abusing Karly.
Stauder told Sarah that sometimes an abuser will pull a child's hair because it doesn't leave marks. But Sarah thought Karly was just stressed because of her move in with Field. And DeSoyza had mentioned to her a disorder that could be responsible for Karly's condition.
DeSoyza knew of a disorder called trichotillomania, a stress reaction not unlike nail-biting, that leads people to pull out their hair. It happens most frequently around adolescence, but children as young as 4 can have it. DeSoyza had seen four or five cases in her career. Doctors are able to diagnose the disorder by excluding other possibilities.
Child abuse was on the list of possible causes for Karly's condition, according to DeSoyza, but it wasn't high on the list.
"I didn't think it could be completely ruled out," DeSoyza said. But she didn't tell David or Sarah.
"I didn't have any strong suspicion of abuse at the time," she said. "I thought it was possible someone had frightened her."
Stauder checked with some hairdressers and learned that people could lose their hair because of stress. After conferring again with Stark, she wrote her report.
"Disposition: Case Unfound. Based on the information I learned in my investigation, I do not believe Sarah or David are physically abusing Karly; nor anyone else I identified."
"Staffed case with Supervisor Sara Stanke," he wrote. "This referral can be Unfounded for physical abuse. We have different people witnessing the child pulling her own hair. This is most likely the result of stress associated with Karly and her mother moving in with the boyfriend in October and seeing less of her father due to changes in his employment. The child's condition is currently improved as she is spending more time with the father."
Stark phoned David and Sarah and left messages informing them of the result of the investigation.
David was relieved to hear the case had been closed as unfounded. But he thought the only reason he had been cleared was that Sarah didn't think he was abusing Karly, and that concerned him. Stark and Stauder had left him saying they were on the fence about him. It was only after talking to Sarah they concluded he was telling the truth. He felt they relied more on her word than on his.
When investigators closed their case Dec. 7, Karly went home with her mother to Shawn Field's house.
Sarah Sheehan met Shawn Field in a bar in September 2004, and it seemed they had things in common. Both were divorced and had daughters, both were students at OSU. They clicked, and the relationship progressed quickly.
"After the first week, Mr. Field started mentioning marriage and moving in," Sarah said.
Sarah wasn't good with money. Field said he had a master's degree in economics and was going for a Ph.D., so it seemed like a good idea to let him control her finances. Soon he insisted she put all her tips from bartending in a jar, and he'd give her an allowance. After they moved in together, Field gave Sarah grocery lists and insisted she buy only what he chose. He said he was investing her money for her. When she questioned him about it, he became angry with her for not trusting him.
"Oppressive and sad," is how Sarah later described the relationship.
Field was also critical of Sarah's arrangement with David. He told Sarah good mothers stayed home with their children. If she made a legal settlement with David that included child support for Karly, then Sarah could stop working and stay home.
"I began to feel like a bad mother," Sarah said.
Field told her she was lucky to have someone like him in her life.
But Field wasn't telling Sarah the truth: He had no degrees beyond high school, he was not a Ph.D. candidate, and he was not investing her money.
Field also had a criminal record. As a 16-year-old, he committed a series of burglaries with two friends. They imprisoned the mother of one friend, robbed the friend's house, and set off to steal a truck owned by Field's brother. The plan was to head across country and take up a life of skiing in Aspen, Colo. They didn't get far before sheriff's deputies caught up with them. Because the crimes occurred when Field was a juvenile, most of the record was later expunged. One file containing investigation reports from the kidnap/burglary had been overlooked and still remained in law enforcement files. But it lay forgotten, presumed destroyed until months after the DHS investigation ended.
Sarah knew nothing of Field's past. She only knew that Karly seemed upset and stressed when she moved in with him.
Karly was stressed for a good reason. She was upset because Field, who at 6-feet-4 inches towered over her, pulled her hair out, which left no marks, hit her on the head where bruises wouldn't show and terrorized her into silence. He did it when she was left alone with him, when there were no witnesses.
Karly was the only one who knew. She had tried to tell Zoller, but at the age of 2, she was only able to communicate part of the story. Whether Field had schooled her to accuse "daddy," no one knows.
Karly's behavior, her clinging to David, her crying for him and her panic at being taken to Field's house, directly contradicted her words, leaving her parents puzzled and very worried. Karly was too terrified to say more.
Karly's condition had improved while staying with David during the three-week investigation. Now it was her turn to be with Sarah - and Field.
Part 2: Officials consider what else could have been done in Karly's case. The story can be found at http://www.gazettetimes.com/articles/2007/02/20/news/community/7aaa03_karly2.txt.