“The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.”
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer
A father’s love for his daughter
Karen Spears Zacharias began her presentation last Thursday evening by reading one of the most poignant passages from her book, A Silence of Mockingbirds.
The passage, from chapter eleven, is a true celebration of Karly Sheehan and of a father’s love for his daughter.
As she was reading, certain phrases about Karly reminded me of my own three year old daughter.
I remembered reading this same passage the previous weekend and it invoked a wide range of emotions.
I laughed when I read, “Karly was on her way from potty-training toddler to full-fledged girlhood and she could talk the hind legs off a donkey. Karly displayed a verbal acuity that would make any Irish grandmother proud and any Irish grandfather exhausted.”
I smiled again when I read about Karly’s enthusiasm and excitement on getting to ride on an airplane and about her and her father’s long layover in Chicago where they witnessed the Brachiosaurus dinosaur on the B concourse. Karen read on, “Karly called it a “disonaur,” her own particular pronunciation for dinosaurs. Her quirky way with language tickled David. No matter how many times he corrected her, Karly liked her enunciation best, and truth be told, so did David.”
Just as when I read this to myself, my eyes welled up with tears. I wasn’t alone. I looked around the room and there were few dry eyes. It was a beautiful passage.
It was a powerful way to begin a presentation. And it was brilliant because it was the hook that reminded each of us in the audience about what matters most in this story: that the life of a three-year old girl was tragically taken away.
As you read on in that chapter, you get to a passage describing why David Sheehan wanted Karly’s story told.
“Karly is more than a statistic, a subject, a patient, a case number,” David said. “She had many people that cared about her and loved her.”
Obviously, David has his own regrets and goes on to say, “I did not do enough to protect Karly. I regret not standing up to the Children’s Services investigation by pointing out the obvious things that were blatantly missed. I placed too much faith in the system.”
It’s going on almost seven years since Karly was murdered, and the fact that it was preventable still feels like a punch in the gut.
In a recent editorial, the Gazette Times stated, “The good news is that we have made some progress since the horrifying 2005 case in which 3-year-old Karly died of injuries inflicted by Shawn Field, the boyfriend of the child’s mother – a case made all the more horrifying because of the missed opportunities to save the child’s life.”
For the most part, that statement rings true. Hopefully, the Corvallis community understands and is appreciative of the efforts of people I read about and met with from Karen’s book, like prosecuting attorney Joan Demarest and Representative Sara Gelser. In fact, due to their efforts and others, this tragedy at least saw something positive come out of it with the passing of Karly’s Law (See the sidebar).
However, I can’t shake the phrase “missed opportunities” from my head.
The phrase “missed opportunities” is a familiar phrase for me in my work as a Portland Timbers beat writer for an online soccer magazine and I use that phrase often in my match recaps.
When talking about a child’s life though, it’s a seriously flawed phrase and it misrepresents the true nature and tone of the conversation we should be having on this topic.
Let me be very clear here. When you have a child protection case involving the loss of photographic evidence, the failure to take the child for an examination by a trained, medical professional and the lack of proper systems in place at DHS, we are doing Karly and all children a disservice by not pointing out the truth here. This wasn’t about missed opportunities. It was about incompetence and there needs to be a reckoning.
At her presentation, I asked Karen Zacharias what happened to the DHS case workers from Karly’s investigation.
To my shock, Elizabeth Castillo and Matt Stark continue to work for DHS and continue to work in child protection.
I wonder how they feel almost seven years later. Does Elizabeth Castillo still think about the photos of Karly that were misplaced? Does Matt Stark wonder about his anti-father bias concerning David Sheehan, his prime suspect in Karly’s abuse?
It’s harsh maybe to bring up the workers, but I can’t help believing these caseworkers saw a single dad, an immigrant no less, and felt they had their abuser.
Despite all the evidence that said otherwise, including testimony from Karly’s daycare providers, who as mandatory reporters filed a report about Karly and believed among themselves that David was Karly’s only chance of getting away from her abuser, David was the main suspect.
All that said, maybe all of us in our culture and society need to shoulder some of the blame.
Truth be told, it’s our culture that’s perpetuated the bias against fathers in the child welfare system. Despite the Urban Institute study that shows that, when a child is taken from its mother by a child welfare agency, in barely half the cases is the father even contacted as a possible placement, child protection agencies repeatedly prefer foster care to father care.
It sends a clear message doesn’t it? Don’t trust fathers. And that bias led to the death of Karly Sheehan.
The title of Karen Zacharias’ memoir, A Silence of Mockingbirds, tells you a lot about her thoughts on how both the system and our culture failed Karly Sheehan.
The male mockingbird is one of nature’s most territorial birds. When the mockingbird mates, it mates for life. And it takes the duties that come with mating, such as producing offspring, very seriously.
When it comes to protecting their young, the mockingbird will take on any and all threats. They are known to drill predators from above and to dive bomb and protect offspring in any manner necessary.
The mockingbird has an incredibly keen sense of perception and can not only sense, but know definitively who will be the greatest threats out of a crowd of hundreds.
The bottom line for a mockingbird is: if you’re young and threatened, the stakes are high and they will take action to protect you.
Seven years shouldn’t erase the outrage. Talking about missed opportunities doesn’t go far enough. It’s not solely the responsibility of the police, justice system and child protection to act as ‘mockingbirds’ for our children. When it comes to protecting children, I can’t help but think of the African proverb, “It takes a village.” It’s everyone’s responsibility to protect our children. It can’t simply fall on those who are paid to protect and serve.
Someone has to draw a line in the sand and ask the tough questions and ask why our society continues to fail when it comes to the protection of our children.
Where are our children’s mockingbirds now when they’re needed most?