Fifteen years ago, I represented a fine young reporter who wrote a heartbreaking series of stories about a three-year-old victim of child abuse, and, later, about the fate of her younger sister. The reason for the representation is largely irrelevant ~ it had much more to do with a vindictive prosecutor (hacked off about earlier stories my client had written) than with anything my client had written with regard to the little girl. Indeed, what my client had done with regard to the child abuse case was just shy of heroic.
During the course of that representation, I wrote an Op-Ed for the local newspaper. The reason for the piece was advocacy, of course, but it was also because the story itself had so touched my soul. On the Sunday it was scheduled to appear, I flipped to the Op-Ed page and was so disappointed to find it not there. It wasn’t there because the thoughtful editor of that section of the paper had put it on the first page, as a friend I had called, in tears, so kindly pointed out.
The piece began as follows (names and places omitted):
Four years ago today, a 3 1/2-year-old girl with haunted eyes the color of cornflowers was beaten to death at the home of her mother and stepfather. Her name was [CM], and she lived most of her short life in [deleted].
Five months before smashed bones and shattered blood vessels killed her, [C] was examined by the state's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. A case file was opened and a social worker assigned. The trouble was, the social worker never saw [C] again. Although the file shows that 19 visits were made to [C’s] home between June and November 1988, it also shows that no one ever talked to the little girl - or even sought her out.
So the slaps and kicks and punches [C] suffered at the bare fists of her young stepfather continued.
And she died.
In addition to teaching second grade for thirty years, my Mom also served on the board of directors of a home for abused children. It was a labor of love, but one that caused her much pain. I remember so well a story she told me, related to her by one of the home's residents -- the older brother (age six or so) of a younger sister who had died from abuse. As she was being wheeled into the emergency room for the last time, according to her brother, the little girl had said: "I was so bad."
And she died.
I wonder what two-year-old Riley Ann Sawyers was thinking on the last night of her life.
(family photo on CNN)
According to the CNN website, Riley’s mother (Kimberly Dawn Trenor) gave a voluntary statement to police on November 23rd, in which she described her involvement, with her boyfriend, Royce Zeigler, "in the physical abuse, death and disposal of the remains of her daughter, Riley Ann Sawyers."
Trenor's statement said on July 24, she and Zeigler both beat the child with leather belts and held her head under water in the bathtub. She said Zeigler picked the girl up by her hair and also threw her across the room, slamming her head into the tile floor.
After her daughter died, Trenor's statement said, she and Zeigler went to a Wal-Mart that night and bought the Sterilite container, a shovel, concrete mix, and other supplies.
The statement said the box containing the child's body was hidden in a storage shed for "one to two months." Then, Trenor said, she and Zeigler carried it to the Galveston Causeway and tossed it in, and she saw it drifting away.
The container -- little Riley Ann’s wet coffin -- was discovered on October 29th by a fisherman in Galveston. It was not until the child’s grandmother (in Ohio) contacted police (after seeing artist’s conceptions of what the little girl found in the container might have looked like while alive) that anyone had any idea who she was.
I have no idea what drove Ms. Trenor (who is still a teenager) and Mr. Ziegler to behave in the heinous and inexcusable way that they did. No matter what the reason, they deserve to go to prison, as do all who harm and kill children. I can no more imagine striking a child than I can imagine kicking an animal. The defenseless and voiceless among us deserve so much more.
Yet Ms. Trenor and Mr. Ziegler are by no means alone.
An estimated 906,000 children are victims of abuse & neglect every year.
The rate of victimization is 12.3 children per 1,000 children
Children ages 0-3 are the most likely to experience abuse. They are victimized at a rate of 16.4 per 1,000
1,500 children die every year from child abuse and neglect. That is just over 4 fatalities every day.
79% of the children killed are younger than 4.
I can imagine that the additional stresses placed on young mothers, young fathers, young families by the reckless policies of this Administration have put more children in danger. Could anyone possibly not believe that that the reasons some children end up abused or dead are because of the desperation brought about by home foreclosures, financial devastation, lack of mental health care (or insurance to pay for it), lack of appropriate daycare, lack of jobs, repeated deployments? Is there anything at all this Administration could possibly do to put more stress on the weakest and most vulnerable of our families -- and the children among them?
I think not.
Tonight, I am saying a special prayer for Riley Ann Sawyers. I am hoping that the angels who could not protect her on this earth can offer her some solace and comfort in the new world that my Christian faith assures me she now inhabits.
I am saying many prayers, too, for all the other small children in harm’s way, and for their parents, and for our country.
We need an Administration that really values families and gives them the support and resources they need. We need a country that really values families -- and really values children. A country that embraces and protects the small and the weak and the voiceless. A country that does everything it can -- always -- to ensure that no more children end up in Sterilite containers in Galveston Bay.
God bless the soul of Riley Ann Sawyers.