The death of a 3-year-old girl from Corvallis, Ore., at the abusive hands of her mother's boyfriend is a gripping story on its own, but the author of the true crime novel says she hopes her book will serve as manual for spotting and stopping child abuse.
A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder recounts the 2005 murder of Karly Sheehan. Author Karen Spears Zacharias, a Hermiston resident and former Tri-City Herald reporter, knew the girl's family and admits she was stunned when she heard about it.
"As a journalist, I had worked the crime beat and cops and courts for several years. ... You cover these stories, and your heart is rendered for the people on either side -- whatever the situation you realize ... that these are real people and they're really hurting," she told the Herald. "But you never think you're going to be part of that hurting crowd."
But, what also stunned Zacharias is that she found out Karly had been abused repeatedly by Shawn Fields in the eight months before her death, but the system that is supposed to protect children failed Karly.
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Karly's day care provider reported concerns about abuse to the proper authorities. Even her father, David Sheehan, provided pictures to the Department of Child Protective Services in December 2004 when Karly showed up at his home for a visit almost bald with bruises on her head.
Zacharias said CPS workers determined Karly pulled out her own hair and may have been suffering from a nervous disorder. Six months later, Karly was dead.
"This book gives people the tools to see where maybe this might be happening in their own families," she said. "This books puts all the signs together, shows the pattern and gives them the tools ... they can then be the voice for the next child."
Zacharias, who also teaches journalism at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, timed her book release to coincide with National Child Abuse Prevention Month. She will be at Barnes & Noble at Columbia Center mall in Kennewick at 6 p.m. Tuesday, signing her book and talking about what she learned about child abuse during the five years she spent researching the story.
"Over five children a day are dying in this nation at the hands of child abuse, and 80 percent are like Karly, ages 3 and under," she said.
She also found that 80 percent of all child abuse is done by the biological parent, with the majority caused by the mother acting alone.
But in Karly's case, her father, David Sheehan, doted on his daughter. He was her primary caretaker, paid for child care and even started a college fund for her.
Her mother, Sarah Sheehan, never was charged in Karly's death, even though she didn't take Karly to the hospital the day she died after seeing her eye was swollen shut, Zacharias said.
The district attorney early on decided Karly's mom had suffered enough by the loss of her child, Zacharias said, but "I don't think the DA or court ever takes that position when dealing with a father."
In fact, David Sheehan became the prime suspect in Karly's death, even though he hadn't seen her in a week and had reported his concerns about his daughter being abused when she was with his ex-wife, she said.
Fields was convicted of Karly's murder and is serving a 46-year prison sentence. In the book, Zacharias writes about how at sentencing the judge said the community needed to do some "deep soul-searching about how or if we might have responded sooner. Might there have been an intervention that could have saved this child's life? I don't know, but after hearing all the evidence, it seems there was a continuum of failure after the first hint that there was something terribly, terribly wrong."
After Karly's death, Oregon State lawmakers created Karly's Law, which requires that within 48 hours of a report of abuse, a child must be examined by a doctor specially trained in child abuse and have pictures taken.
Zacharias said she would like to see Karly's Law become a national law, and she hopes her book helps spur the discussion to make that happen.
"We read more and more (about abuse), and we shake our head, and we feel bad. We feel so bad for these children. But abused children do not need us to feel bad for them, they need us to act," she said. "... In Karly's story, we get an insider's look at the subtle manipulation and outright deceitfulness that goes into child abuse. We don't usually get that bird's-eye view.
"I know this book is speaking to a lot of people," she added. "Karly's story is so powerful because it teaches us how this works and how it continues to happen over and over again."
Information about child abuse and Karly's Law is included in the back of Zacharias' book and on her website, karenzach.com. There's also a link to "Meet Karly Sheehan" on her website for people who want to know more about Karly.