April is Child Abuse Awareness Month. Here in the midvalley it’s easy to look around our community and think that abuse doesn’t happen here.
The recent coverage in the Gazette-Times revisiting the murder of 3-year-old Karly Sheehan tells a different story and forces us to look back almost seven years to this horrific tragedy and how easily it could have been prevented.
Law enforcement, DHS workers, and medical professionals were involved with Karly’s case for six months preceding her death. Karly’s mother’s boyfriend Shawn Field blamed accidents, Karly’s father — and even Karly herself —for causing her injuries and behavioral changes, and he was believed.
Justice for Karly meant that I had to make tough decisions during the trial. I had to decide whether to call Field’s 9-year-old daughter to testify against her father, as I knew she had heard her father beating Karly the night before he beat her to death. It was a heart-wrenching decision, but I couldn’t risk keeping that evidence from the jury.
The jury convicted Field, and Judge Holcomb imposed a life sentence for the murder, with consecutive time for other crimes. He cannot be considered for release until he is 86 years old.
During the sentencing hearing, Judge Holcomb encouraged our community to examine what we could do to prevent other children from falling through the safety net that is intended to protect them. We listened.
State Rep. Sara Gelser asked me to help her draft legislation that would prevent other children from slipping through the cracks. The resulting Karly’s Law requires that children with suspicious injuries be seen by a child abuse expert within 48 hours, and that the injuries be photographed. I am confident that these provisions would have saved Karly’s life had they been in place during her lifetime.
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Despite our progress, our state has a long way to go. Children are still being abused, and only 10 percent of abuse gets reported. Abuse that doesn’t get reported can result in death. In 2010 alone, 10 Oregon children died from child abuse. Clearly, we need to do more.
I recently testified for legislation that will expand the categories of adults who are required to report child abuse. Eighteen states make all adults mandatory reporters of child abuse, and I hope that Oregon soon joins them.
Making the decision to report suspected child abuse can be tough. No one wants to get people in trouble, especially when the adults involved seem like good people. But as a society we must believe that sometimes people do the unbelievable.
If you know a child whom you suspect may have been physically or sexually abused, do not hesitate to report your concern. Anyone can call DHS or law enforcement and report suspected abuse anonymously. Remember that your call will not remove a child from her home or bring parents into court. Only an investigation by trained professionals will do that. Your call could save a child’s life.
If you want to prevent child abuse, there are several good organizations to support, including the ABC House, which is our local child abuse assessment center, and The Parenting Success Network, a coalition of local resources for parents.
Most important: If you suspect abuse, make that call. The only risk is failing to do your part to protect an innocent and powerless child.
Some numbers to call if you suspect child abuse:
- Benton County DHS: 541-757-5019
- 911 or local law enforcement agency
- Benton County Sheriff 541-766-6858
- Corvallis Police 541-766-6924
- Philomath Police 541-929-6911
Joan Demarest is an attorney in private practice. She lives with her husband and four children in Corvallis. She served as a Benton County Deputy District Attorney from 1998-2006.