A case for constructive outrage

An Oregon writer explores the depths of child abuse and learns we all have a role in preventing it.

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Karly Sheehan was 3 when her mother's boyfriend tortured and killed the child in Corvallis, Ore., on June 3, 2005. How society and social services failed her and continues to do so with other children is the subject of a book by Eastern Oregon investigative reporter Karen Spears Zacharias.

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Karen Spears Zacharias, author of "Silence of the Mockingbirds," will be at Book & Game Co. on Main Street in Walla Walla at 2p.m. Sunday to sign copies of her book.

When I called Karen Spears Zacharias last week, I was at page 189 of "A Silence of Mockingbirds."

I had been devouring her new book since it arrived at my desk from the publisher.

Karen was a newspaper reporter at the East Oregonian and Tri-City Herald for years. She worked on a number of things, including the crime beat.

We've never worked together professionally but our paths have crisscrossed on some heavy personal journeys.

Now I was halfway through her book and feeling immersed in the worst tragedy I've come across.

In "A Silence of Mockingbirds," she tells the story of Karly Sheehan, a 3-year-old girl who was tortured and killed by her mother's boyfriend in Corvallis, Ore., on June 3, 2005.

Karly's mother, Sarah Brill Sheehan, was raised in Pendleton and her family lives there still. As a teen not connecting well with her adoptive family, Sarah lived with Karen's family for a while.

Despite the connection, there had been distance created over Sarah's choices -- including the one to leave Karly's father, David Sheehan, when Karly was a year old.

And Karen, who lives in Hermiston, would come to regret that distance.

It's a horrendous tale, but one Karen had to write. Published April 1 to coincide with National Child Abuse Prevention Month, it's a story of how the Oregon child welfare system systematically failed to protect and save Karly.

It's not that no one knew. David Sheehan sounded the alarm over and over, presenting evidence to officials and experts that his daughter had gone from his little princess to being the victim of Sarah's boyfriend, Shawn Wesley Field.

The 42 year-old Field is now serving a 46-year sentence at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute in Pendleton. He is battling cancer, but not very well, Karen said.

It's tempting to feed you sentences from the book designed to stun your senses, make you shake your head and feel heavy in your soul. The details of Karly's short life are vivid and the ways society failed her are painfully laid out.

Instead, I'd rather you read the book yourself and that I use this space to tell you the takeaway message Karen desperately wants you to hear.

For starters, if you're like most all of us, you don't want to think about child abuse. You don't want to picture Karly's hair being pulled out in patches and the purple bruises that blotched her sweet face at the hands of a monster.

"You write a book about animal abuse and people will turn out in droves," Karen said. "And the outcry will be huge. You write a book about child abuse and the silence is deafening."

We, all of us, have got to break through that barrier of silence, she added.

Veteran investigative reporter that she is, Karen is still haunted by the information she came upon while writing the book.

There were days and days she cried through the work. To discover that, nationwide, child protective services are not meeting the needs of 40 percent of the kids who need its help, makes her furious.

"Where, in private industry, could you have a 40 percent failure rate and get away with it? You are shut down, you are bankrupt at that point," she said. "Why is it OK for a government agency to ... lose up to 2,000 children a year?"

She now also knows that, opposite of public perception, 80 percent of all child abuse cases are perpetrated by biological parents. "And out of that, 48 percent is perpetrated by mothers acting alone," Karen said, her voice on the edge of outrage. "If it was 48 percent of the dads doing the abuse, we'd say 'what assholes.'"

Another popped perception is the one in which it's usually people who had disadvantaged childhoods who become abusive parents, she added. "Both Sarah and Shawn did not grow up in single-parent families. They both grew up in nurturing, evangelical homes. Great parents on both sides."

While Sarah Sheehan was never charged in connection with Karly's death, she turned a blind eye to the evil surrounding her child in the form of Fields, Karen contends in the book.

And the public does the same, overwhelmed by the gargantuan size of the issue.

But we must all be on patrol for possible abuse, she said. Police cannot act on every call about a parent cussing out a kid, for example, but all of us can be aware and outspoken.

"Number one, be aware of the children in your life. And second, if you see something troubling and your gut tells you something ain't right, make that call. The more calls CPS gets the more likely they are to make that investigation."

Be loud, be noisy and be a thorn, she advises.

The title of book is really the most straightforward way of looking at protecting our children, Karen summarized. Mockingbirds, while not large, are "fiercely protective of their young," going after potential threats 100 times their own size, she pointed out. Like kamikazes dive-bombing, "they will drill anyone and anything they consider a danger to their offspring, no matter the size of the predator."

Sarah was no mockingbird for her daughter, the author said.

"If a bird isn't afraid to do so, shouldn't we do no less than that?"

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