A bill that would help protect victims of child abuse was passed unanimously in the Oregon House of Representatives on Monday.
The bill is named "Karly's Law" for Karly Sheehan, the Corvallis 3-year-old who was beaten to death in June, 2005, by her mother's boyfriend, Shawn Field. Karly was the subject of a Department of Human Services Child Welfare investigation six months before she died, but the investigation concluded she was not the victim of abuse. In November, 2006, Field was found guilty of torturing and killing Karly and is currently serving a life sentence.
The legislation was introduced by Rep. Sara Gelser of Corvallis. If it becomes law, it would tighten the requirements for investigating potential child abuse victims.
"To say I was pleased is an understatement," said Gelser about Monday's vote.
She said it is very unusual for the House to pass legislation unanimously. The bill will now go to the Senate where it will be assigned to a committee, most likely to the Human Services Committee. Bills must clear Senate committees by the end of May.
Gelser said the bill does not have a sponsor in the Senate, but doesn't anticipate any major resistance to its passage, based both on Monday's unanimous vote and on conversations she has had with some senators.
Karly's parents, David Sheehan and Sarah Sheehan, who are divorced, were present for the vote Monday, as were Karly's grandparents Gene and Carol Brill of Pendleton. Also present was former Benton County deputy district attorney Joan Demarest, who prosecuted Field.
Karly, two-years-old in the fall of 2004, started to appear with bruises and hair loss after her mother, Sarah Sheehan, moved in with Field. Karly told her babysitter that she was being beaten about the head. The babysitter reported her concerns to DHS and an investigation started. But Karly's injuries were misdiagnosed as self-inflicted. Karly was not seen by a doctor who was trained in recognizing child abuse, and photos that child protective services case workers took of her injuries were lost. No one who could have recognized the evidence of child abuse in Karly's case saw her or photos of her injuries.
Gelser's bill would ensure that:
• Each county designates a physician who is trained in identifying child abuse.
• If a case worker or investigator interviews a child with suspicious injuries, 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 where the child has suspicious injuries will take photographs that must be circulated among the members of the child abuse team.
The importance of an examination by a physician who is trained to identify child abuse was emphasized at earlier hearings by Dr. Carol Chervenak, the medical director of the All Because of Children House in Albany. Chervenak said most physicians have little or no training in identifying child abuse, and health care providers who do have that training diagnose it twice as often as those who do not.
In 2005, DHS received 55,114 reports of possible child abuse, according to Gelser. Of those, only 14 percent were founded. Karly was one of the 86 percent that were determined to be unfounded.
"If this law had been in place in 2005, Karly Sheehan would likely be a laughing, dancing 5-year-old today," Gelser said.
Rep. Jerry Kummel of Wilsonville initially questioned whether the bill would allow DHS case workers to remove a child from a home based solely on the evidence of a photograph. Gelser said the bill makes no changes in the process of removing children from potentially dangerous homes. And in fact, by ensuring that a physician who is trained in child abuse sees the child, the bill would protect parents from mistakes by overzealous case workers or investigators.