SALEM - A bill inspired by the death of a Corvallis toddler got support at a hearing in the Capitol on Monday.
The House Human Services and Women's Wellness Committee heard testimony about "Karly's Law," which would close some of the gaps in current safeguards for children who are victims of abuse and neglect.
The legislation was proposed by Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, in response to the murder of 3-year-old Karly Sheehan in June 2005. Karly was beaten to death by her mother's boyfriend, Shawn Field. The Department of Human Services had an open investigation into possible child abuse at the time of Karly's death. Field was found guilty last year of torturing and killing Karly and is serving a life sentence.
Testifying at the hearing were Karly's father, David Sheehan, and DHS child protective services program manager Una Swanson, as well as representatives from the Juvenile Rights Project and CASA, which provides court advocates for children who have been removed by the state from unsafe homes. All voiced their support for the bill.
Joan Demarest, a former Benton County deputy district attorney who prosecuted Field, told the committee that Karly's death was utterly preventable.
"We have layers and layers of safeguards to protect children," she said. "Karly slipped through every layer."
Demarest recounted Karly's story - how she started to appear with bruises and hair loss after her mother, Sarah Sheehan, moved in with Field. How Karly was terrified of going home with her mother and Field, how she clung to her father. How her injuries were misdiagnosed as self-inflicted.
Most important, Karly was not seen by a doctor who was trained in recognizing child abuse, and photos that child protective services caseworkers took were lost. No one who could have recognized the evidence of child abuse in Karly's case saw her or photos of her injuries.
"Had this bill been in place in 2004," Demarest said, "I believe Karly Sheehan would be alive today."
Among the provisions in Gelser's proposed legislation are:
• The district attorney in each county will designate a multidisciplinary child abuse team to investigate child abuse cases.
• Each county will designate a physician who is trained in identifying child abuse.
• If a potential child abuse case is reported, the designated physician or someone approved by him or her must see the child within 48 hours.
• The investigator who first responds to a possible child abuse call will take photographs that must be circulated among the members of the child abuse team.
Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Tomei remarked that digital cameras are inexpensive and asked Swanson if DHS supplied them to caseworkers. Swanson said not every office or every caseworker has a camera.
Child abuse expert Dr. Carol Chervenak, medical director of ABC House in Albany, testified that children with injuries from abuse are often misdiagnosed.
"Child abuse is the leading cause of injury-related deaths among infants," Chervenak said, "and the second leading cause of injury deaths in older children."
And yet most physicians have little or no training in identifying child abuse. Fewer than half of pediatric residencies require child abuse rotations. She also said that health care providers who are trained in recognizing child abuse diagnose it twice as often as those who have no education or training in that area.
Chervenak testified at Field's trial that studies have been done to determine what kinds of injuries are most commonly accidental in children and what kinds almost never are. The information is out there, but most doctors don't have it.
Oregon has regional child abuse assessment centers, such as ABC House, where children who might be victims of child abuse can be evaluated. But not all are equipped to do medical evaluations, according to Swanson. Some are advocacy centers, and they have many calls on their time.
"They're already busy," Swanson said.
If the legislation passes, there may be some issues in the future about accessibility in rural areas and the ability of existing resources to meet the requirements of the law.
Gelser said the bill provides for counties to make a diligent effort to identify medical professionals with expertise in child abuse. If they are not able to find them, they are to notify the state by Sept. 31, 2008. At that point, training would be provided to nurse practitioners or other medical staff who are available in those counties.
"We are going to expand the number of medical professionals who have expertise in child abuse," Gelser said.
She emphasized that even with the legislation in place, not every child who is abused will necessarily be brought to the attention of child protective workers or law enforcement. Karly's Law addresses children who are being assessed by authorities already. There are still many children who don't have visible injuries or whose injuries can be explained away as accidental and who never get reported to DHS.
Still, Gelser said, this bill represents progress.
"For the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, I do think this will help," she said.