I think of her almost daily. Certainly every time I read a story about another child abuse death. There have been so many since Karly Sheehan was beaten to death in June, 2005.
I can’t help but hope that her murder would have stirred people to take more action, to do more to protect children like her. But the thing is Karly had a lot of protectors around her, people doing their level best to awaken authorities to the ongoing abuse and neglect by Karly’s mother and her mother’s lover.
In truth there are hundreds, thousands of stories like Karly’s, right here in the US. Many of which have gone underreported during the past two years because of the pandemic that forced children to be around the very people who abuse them – most often their mothers. Jails are full of mothers who put their own children in harm’s way, mothers who abused their children, mothers who allow boyfriends or men they barely know to abuse their children.
We lost more children to child abuse on US soil than we have to both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars during the same time period. Yet, like so much about who we are as a nation, we hate to admit the truth of it to ourselves. We think of ourselves as a people who value children above all else.
The statistics regarding the abuse of children, and the deaths that result from it defy our mythmaking, exposes it for the load of dookey it really is. Too many children are not safe in their own homes.
Karly never wanted to be left with her mother after the abuse started. She wanted to be solely in the care of the one person who was doing his level best to protect her: Her daddy.
There is a story I share in A Silence of Mockingbirds that sums up the power of the relationship between father and daughter:
As David drove by a gleaming glass office building shortly before their last Christmas together, Karly pointed at the mirrored building and said, “When I’m big and I’m a dada, I’m going to work there.”
David corrected her and said, “But Karly, when you’re big you won’t be a dada. You’ll be a mommy.”
“I don’t want to be a mommy!” Karly cried. “I want to be a dada! I want to be a dada!”
David would recall that incident later in court as the moment when he knew something was terribly amiss between daughter and mother. “I told Sarah your relationship with Karly is beginning to crumble here and you’d better take some steps to address it.
Had she lived, Karly Sheehan would turn 20 today. She undoubtedly would be enrolled in university, studying something challenging, planning for graduate school, or travel abroad, or an internship. She loved people and books. She had a keen sense of humor and a keen intellect. Her love for her father was deep and abiding. She felt the safest in his presence, and indeed, was the safest in his presence.
I expect she would have found someway to prank David on her 20th birthday, and would have retold the story throughout the rest of her life, recalling with laughter how she got him good.
I have so many conflicted emotions when days like today roll around. So much life has happened in Karly’s absence.
She ought to be here for it.
She would have been here for it if only her mother had done right by her.
Instead, like far too many women, Sarah Brill lied and hid her own wrongdoing and neglect to protect the man who would kill her daughter.
Others have forgiven Sarah for that, made excuses for her, dismissed all her culpability in the murder of her daughter, even the courts allowed her to walk away without any accountability, as they so often do in child abuse cases, claiming that the death of Karly is punishment enough.
I do not forgive Sarah any of that.
As I state in the book: “We blame God when children die, as a way of deflecting the truth, a way to shift responsibility away from the real source – ourselves.”
There are those who defend Sarah, who say that God took Karly home, to be another angel.
The truth is Karly Sheehan isn’t here to celebrate her 20th birthday simply because her mother put her in harm’s way. Repeatedly. And got away with murder in the process.
If Covid were killing half-a-dozen children every single day in this country, citizens would rise up and demand that more be done to protect children.
But for some inexplicable reason, half-a-dozen children die daily in this country from child abuse and neglect, and we continue to look the other way, to remain silent, just as Sarah Brill’s parents did, refusing to acknowledge what they knew in their hearts: Karly was being abused and their daughter was complicit.
On this, his daughter’s 20th birthday, David Sheehan is conducting a fundraiser for the Linn-Benton Food Bank. You can make a donation and read about why David chose this charity by following this link .
We have to do more than be kind; we have to learn to be the kind of people who speak for those unable to speak for themselves.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of A Silence of Mockingbirds: The story behind Karly’s Law.