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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

March 16th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
As outrageous as the failure of Corvallis child welfare authorities to protect three-year-old Karly Sheehan from nine months of abuse by Shawn Field was, the refusal of the local district attorney to charge Sarah Sheehan runs a close second.

It’s difficult to convey just how indifferent Sarah Sheehan appears to have been to the welfare of her daughter.  As I said in my previous piece, she was a person who worked little and partied hard.  Alcohol and a smorgasbord of prescription medications were her drugs of choice and she was a serious gambler.

Even though she was mother to a little girl, Sarah did little active parenting and what she did do she did in a detached, unnatural manner.  A man for whom she once worked said he had known her for four years before he even knew she had a daughter, and when he learned, he saw that “Sarah put Sarah first, not Karly.”

Person after person recounts incidents of Sarah’s seeming indifference to her little girl.  At a gathering where children were playing and adults were talking, Karly would rush up to Sarah who simply continued her conversation, never acknowledging the child was there.

“She was the kind who’d ask you to watch Karly for ten minutes and come back eight hours later,” was how one observer put it.  Delynn Zoller, who ran the daycare center Karly went to, recounted Sarah’s “unnatural way about her.”  When Karly cried, “this blankness would wash over Sarah,” Zoller said.

But distant parenting, cold parenting, even irresponsible parenting were the least of Sarah’s problems as a mother.  Once she moved in with Shawn Field in October of 2004, Karly’s health started deteriorating, and it didn’t take people like Delynn Zoller long to see that she was being abused.  Sarah must have known it too from the very beginning, but, at the very least, she covered it up.

Did Sarah actively participate in Karly’s abuse?  Did she punch her or strike her with weapons?  We’ll never know.  Shawn Field refused to be interviewed for The Silence of the Mockingbirds, and he’s the only one who can tell us.

What Sarah did do, though, is actively participate in covering up the abuse.  Time and again, when David Sheehan, Zoller, the pediatrician or child welfare workers asked, Sarah had some benign explanation for the increasing injuries to Karly.  Put simply, her daughter was being beaten and Sarah lied again and again about the abuse and who was doing it.

Worse still, she tried to make it look like it was Karly’s father David who was the culprit.  Given the plain anti-father bias of Child Welfare, it’s no surprise that the ruse worked and that David, not Shawn Field, was brought into the agency’s crosshairs.  He remained there until Karly was dead.  Among other things, Sarah concocted a series of four “diary entries” supposedly documenting abuse by David.  They were clearly fabrications, but her intent to frame the girl’s father was there.

Throughout all of this, Karly showed a clear preference for her father over her mother.  Given the choice, she would run to her father for love even at one point declaring that, when she grew up, she didn’t want to be a mommy, but “a dada.”  After just a short time with Shawn, the girl began showing signs that she feared him. 

The night before Karly was finally killed, after months of abuse, Sarah got off work at 7:45 PM.  Despite the fact that her daughter was terribly injured over much of her body and clearly in medical distress, Sarah had left her with Shawn, something she’d promised David more than once she’d never do again.  But when she left work, Sarah didn’t go home to be with her daughter, she stayed out and partied until around midnight, drinking and popping pain pills.  Security cameras in the bar’s parking lot caught Karly’s mother giving oral sex to the beer delivery man.

Once home, Sarah didn’t even bother to look in on her daughter.  The next day, she was dead.

Now, whether Sarah ever raised a hand against Karly or not, once the child was dead the district attorney, Scott Heiser, had ample evidence with which to charge her with criminal negligence, child endangerment and the like.  He even admitted as much, but he chose not to.  And he told Karen Zacharias why.

“There was probable cause to charge Sarah for exposing her daughter to Shawn Field,” Heiser said.  “At a minimum, she was reckless.  She analyzed everything from her own interest first.”

But Heiser said his decision to not charge Sarah was purely an emotional one.

“I chose not to charge Sarah Sheehan with anything, recklessly endangering a minor, or neglect, because I weighed the cost benefit.  What do we bring to the safety of the community by raking her through the coals?  It was a mercy decision based solely on empathy and grief.  I felt like she had already paid a high enough price.”

Zacharias gives that specious reasoning a lengthy and merciless execution.  She points out the historic leniency given by courts to women and their lesser likelihood of even being charged.

“The woman nearly always gets a lesser sentence and is viewed merely as a compliant accomplice, especially if men are handling the case,” said Kathleen Ramsland.  Ramsland teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University and has written numerous books on forensics and crime.  “I think men are afraid of knowing women might be capable of real brutality, so they default to a softer view…”

If the roles of father and mother had been reversed in the death of Karly, what are the chances prosecutors would have determined the father had suffered enough already?  Would the system have overlooked the contributory role David may have played in his daughter’s death the way they did with Sarah?

To ask the question is to answer it.

According to veteran juvenile court litigator Bill Furtick,

“The construct of the entire investigative and training paradigm for the State of Oregon is built on the idea that only men do domestic violence,” Furtick said.  “Men are seen as the abusers.  Fathers, not mothers.  Of course that’s not always true.”

Women commit the bulk of child abuse, but the judicial system has cultivated a bias toward men and allotted women preferential treatment.  “There is bias,” said Dr. Debra Esernio-Jenssen, medical director for the Children Protection Team at the University of Florida.  “I think society accepts that a man may not be a good caregiver.  As a whole, society expects women to be nurturing caregivers.”

Kudos to Zacharias for making the anti-father bias of family and criminal courts, and child welfare agencies clear for all to see.  It certainly was in the case of Karly Sheehan.  Had that bias not been there, she’d be alive today.  I wonder if the Child Welfare workers who bungled Karly’s case realize the part their bias played in murder.

For his part, Scott Heiser’s question whether charging Sarah with a crime would have added to the safety of the community, is almost too strange to believe.  Many people question the efficacy of criminal law and punishment, but district attorneys aren’t usually among them.  Who believes more in the necessity of finding wrongdoers, charging them, convicting them and punishing them within the bounds of the law than district attorneys?  Ask any prosecutor and he/she will tell you that that process (a) punishes the bad actor and (b) deters others from future criminal behavior, two things that are beneficial to society.

So, according to the very code he lives by, Scott Heiser should have reasoned that Sarah had to be charged, tried and convicted, but he didn’t.  In fact, he decided that the death of her daughter – that she herself had done so much to facilitate – was itself “punishment enough.”

Interestingly, the jury in Shawn Field’s murder case disagreed.  Several of them told Zacharias that they would probably have convicted Sarah of contributing to Karly’s death, if they’d only had the chance.

Contrary to Heiser’s assertions, it may well be that sending Sarah to prison would have deterred other mothers from similar behavior.  It may well have saved a child’s life right there in Corvallis.  We’ll never know.

What we do know is that radical bias against men and in favor of women, particularly mothers, plagues our nation’s courts, both family and criminal.  That’s not only unjust to men, it’s dangerous to children.

A thousand thanks to Karen Zacharias for showing it to us “up close and personal.” 

I urge you to buy and read The Silence of the Mockingbirds when it comes out on April 1st.  It’s one of the best ambassadors we have to convince others of the need for change in how we approach child abuse.  It argues passionately for equal treatment for fathers.

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