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March 15th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The Silence of the Mockingbirds, Karen Spears Zacharias (307 pp., MacAdam/Cage).

I’ve been asked by MacAdam Cage to review Karen Spears Zacharias’ fine book, The Silence of the Mockingbirds.  It’s scheduled to come out on April 1st and is a must-read for anyone concerned about child abuse, fathers’ rights or both. 

Zacharias is a long-time police and courts reporter in Oregon, but the subject of her book comes from her personal relationships with two of the central characters in the drama she reports on.

On June 3, 2005, in Corvallis, Oregon, three-year-old Karly Sheehan finally died from beatings by Shawn Field, the boyfriend of Karly’s mother, Sarah Sheehan.  Field was brought to trial and convicted of felony murder in the girl’s death.  He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 46 years.  He was 33 at the time.

By itself the story is heart-rending, but sadly much like other cases in which a small child dies from abuse at the hands of an adult “caregiver.”  However, a couple of things set Zacharias’ narrative apart from a routine telling of a tragic story.  The first is her intimate knowledge of the people involved.  In addition to her reporter’s skills, which are formidable, Zacharias is under no illusions about the characters of the major players in the drama.  So, throughout the book she balances a journalist’s objectivity with the passion of a woman who knew Sarah Sheehan, her ex-husband David and above all, little Karly.

Second, and more important, Zacharias is not content to simply tell the story of a child’s death.  To her everlasting credit, she places her tale in the larger context of how we as a society deal with child abuse.  Karly’s death was not an isolated incident.  Neither was the shocking incompetence of child welfare caseworkers who knew months in advance that Karly was being abused, but never intervened to stop it.  Zacharias wants nothing less than for The Silence of the Mockingbirds to change our approach to child abuse prevention.  I hope it does.

Sarah Sheehan, née Brill, was an adopted child.  She grew up to be a beautiful young woman whose looks Zacharias compares to Halle Berry’s.  Zacharias knew her from Sarah’s high school years and even took her in for a year when Sarah was a young adult.  Zacharias came to have a kind of mother’s love for Sarah.

But that love didn’t prevent Zacharias from drawing some very unflattering conclusions about Sarah’s personality.  Simply, she grew to be a narcissist who traded on her looks and distorted the truth to fit her immediate needs.  She was also a compulsive gambler and partier who often abused alcohol and prescription pain medication.  Sarah was beautiful, charming and flirtatious.  She made friends easily, but lost them just as easily.

To Zacharias’ delight, Sarah married David Sheehan.  He was an engineer from Ireland who was working at Hewlett-Packard and seemed to be the perfect possibility to turn Sarah’s life in a positive direction.  David was intelligent, funny, responsible and committed to Sarah, but instead of his improving her character, she bridled at the restrictions of marriage.  Sarah left David just three months after the birth of their daughter Karly.

Zacharias was appalled.  She had great respect and love for David, and feared that Sarah’s self-centered, partying ways would mean Karly would be neglected.  It turned out far worse than anything Zacharias could have imagined.

When Karly was 2 ½, Sarah took up with Shawn Field.  The child’s abuse began within weeks and nine months later she was dead. 

Karly’s daycare operator, Delynn Zoller, first noticed that the child’s beautiful French braid had been brutally hacked off.  Gradually, she lost almost all her hair and bruises started to appear.  The child who had been a delight to adults and children alike became clingy and withdrawn.  Early on, Zoller reported Karly’s problems to the Child Welfare Division of Oregon’s Department of Human Services who sent a caseworker out to investigate along with a police officer who specialized in child abuse cases.  They did nothing to stop the abuse.

The abuse continued and with each new revelation, Sarah Sheehan, Karly’s mother, had a new explanation.  Karly fell, she had allergies, she hit herself in the forehead, she rubbed her eye.  Those explanations that were flagrantly false, still passed muster with the DHS caseworkers and Karly’s pediatrician who was inexperienced in child abuse cases.

Worse than Sarah’s cover-ups, she and Shawn carried on a campaign to pin the blame on David Sheehan.  Those efforts, including photographing Karly’s injuries, were laughably amateurish and convinced no one but Child Welfare.  But that served to keep law enforcement’s spotlight trained on David, so the abuse continued.

On the day of her death, Karly had 60 separate injuries to her small body.  She had bruises old and new, all her hair was gone and one of her eyes was ruptured and swollen shut.  As the little girl literally wept blood, her mother and Shawn retired to the next room to have sex.  Later, Shawn took one last photo of Karly as part of his quixotic effort to fix blame on David.  Near death, Karly still gamely tried to smile her “princess” smile for the camera.  Neither Sarah nor Shawn sought medical care for her.

How could a child be beaten to death over a period of nine months and no one put a stop to it?  That’s the main thrust of Zacharias’ book and can be answered in a nutshell.  Karly was killed because no one who was supposed to stop it did so.

It wasn’t for lack of information.  Indeed, many people reported the abuse.  Delynn Zoller did so.  So did David Sheehan, and therein lies the single most important point of The Silence of the Mockingbirds.  The Child Welfare caseworker and the police officer who specialized in child abuse took one look at Karly’s father and decided they had their man.  Despite overwhelming evidence that David was the kindest, most loving, most responsible of fathers, despite the fact that Karly clearly loved him above all others, and turned to him for safety and comfort, Child Welfare never seriously considered any other possible perpetrator.

Mothers do twice the child abuse and neglect in this country that fathers do – 40% of the total.  Add a boyfriend and you’ve accounted for well over half of all child abuse and neglect.  That’s exactly the situation that faced the Corvallis child welfare agency, but not once did they consider the possibility that anyone but the father was responsible. 

That radical anti-father bias blinded them to what was obvious to many people who knew Karly Sheehan.  Her daycare teachers knew that Sarah was uninvolved with and largely uninterested in her daughter and that, when the inevitable happened, David “would be there to pick up the pieces.”  One look at David’s house, with Karly’s drawings on the fridge, her photo everywhere, her clothes in the closet and toys strewn around would have convinced an impartial observer that David Sheehan was the furthest thing from an abusive parent.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened.  The day of Karly’s death, Corvallis police went to David’s house.

What investigators did find in David’s home were toys galore, dozens of framed snapshots of Karly, and racks of the girl’s clothes hanging in the closet.  “It was apparent Mr. Sheehan was dedicated to Karly,” the police report concluded.

Detective Wells came to the same conclusion.  “Once we did the search and met David, we could tell he was a victim.  For most of us, David was out of the picture as a prime suspect that night.”

The question screams to be asked “why didn’t Child Welfare see what was obvious to the police and so many others?”  Zacharias’ implicit answer and my explicit one is “anti-father bias.”  Despite a thousand red flags about Sarah and Shawn, Child Welfare never considered that they might be hurting Karly.  Despite a thousand indications that David was a fine and loving father who would never injure his daughter, he was their “prime suspect” up until the day the girl died at the hands of someone else.

As we know, anti-father bias isn’t just a problem for Corvallis child welfare authorities.  It’s a nationwide problem.  I’ve often cited 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.  CPS prefers foster care to father care despite the efforts of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to get them to involve fathers and the fact that doing so would be cheaper than foster care.

The terrible tragedy of Karly Sheehan’s murder is just another manifestation of that same mindset – don’t trust fathers.  Oregon Child Welfare didn’t and a little girl died.

And that message is the nut of Karen Zacharias’ The Silence of the Mockingbirds.  Her goal is to redo how we approach child abuse in this country.  Zacharias knows that will never happen until CPS caseworkers drop their antipathy for fathers.  Until we start teaching every one of them that dads aren’t the enemy, beautiful children like Karly Sheehan will continue to die.

Thanks to Karen Spears Zacharias for her powerful narrative, her wisdom to see the truth about Karly’s case and her courage to fight the power that would keep fathers from protecting the children they love.

I’ll be back soon with Part 2 of this review.

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