Guest Host: Katty Kay

Karly Sheehan

Karly Sheehan

On June 5th, 2005 in an small Oregon college town thought to be a ‘good place to raise kids’ a three year old girl was tortured and killed. Her name was Karly Sheehan. The boyfriend of Karly’s mother is serving time for the murder. Investigative journalist Karen Spears Zacharias tells the story of Karly’s life and death, She questions why others who could have and should have protected the little girl didn’t. The story of Karly Sheehan and the urgent need to better protect all children from abuse.


  • Karen Spears Zacharias Journalist and author of "Hero Mama"


  • 11:06:54

    MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is on a station visit. Karly Sheehan was three years old when she died. She was abused and murdered. Her mother's boyfriend is serving time. But as investigative journalist details in her new book, others could've stepped in and saved Karly. The book is called "A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of A Murder."

  • 11:07:19

    MS. KATTY KAYKaren Spears Zacharias joins me to talk about Karly's life and her death and her own connection to this preventable tragedy and what can be done to better protect our children. In a few minutes we'll be taking your calls and questions, 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number. You can also email us at and join my conversation with Karen Spears Zacharias. Karen, thank you so much for coming in to share this story.

  • 11:07:47

    MS. KAREN SPEARS ZACHARIASThank you so much for taking an interest in this important work.

  • 11:07:52

    KAYKaren, tell me about when you first heard that little Karly, blond, smiling, cheerful little girl that you'd known, that she had died.

  • 11:08:02

    ZACHARIASIt was in March of 2007. And Sarah Sheehan, Karly's mother and I, had a falling out when she told me that she was leaving her husband, David. I knew David to be a really good dad. I knew Sarah to be a bit reckless. So I was concerned that she would be neglectful of Karly if she left David. And she had custody. So we had a falling out in 2003, we didn't speak again until 2007 and she was at my daughter's house and I asked about Karly, was Karly with her father? And she got really nervous. I know all of her nervous ticks and she said, no, Karly has passed and I'm having a very bad day and I don't want to talk about it.

  • 11:09:00

    ZACHARIASWell, I'd been working for another book with war widows so I knew if they ask not to talk, not to talk. So I didn't. We went out to dinner. There was never any mention of Karly again. The next morning, I called her and apologized and told her how sorry I was that I had not been there for her when Karly had died. I still had no idea how she died.

  • 11:09:24

    KAYAnd you had known Sarah from years before?

  • 11:09:27

    ZACHARIASYears before. I met Sarah when she was 14 years old. So we had struck up kind of that mentoring relationship that teachers often do with students that way.

  • 11:09:38

    ZACHARIASAnd she was a beautiful young woman.

  • 11:09:40

    ZACHARIASBeautiful, engaging, sweet, very sweet, soft spoken, but just had that little bit of recklessness to her.

  • 11:09:50

    KAYAnd then Sarah met David and they had Karly.

  • 11:09:53

    ZACHARIASThey did but prior to her meeting David, when she was 19 and 20 years old, she got pregnant out of wedlock and she came to my husband and I asked us to adopt that baby. We did not adopt that baby. But I introduced her to the people who did adopt that child, also a girl. That girl is 17 today and doing quite well. But when she gave that baby up for adoption, we brought Sarah home. So in essence, we adopted Sarah but not the baby she asked us to adopt. It was years later that she met David and married him and had Karly.

  • 11:10:30

    KAYShe had a weakness for some addictions.

  • 11:10:34

    ZACHARIASShe had a gambling problem, addiction, that I was unaware of, for a long time really, until I started writing this book. She also liked the party life. That was really what attracted to, was night life and being with friends and prescription drugs, maybe, a little bit and alcohol drinking.

  • 11:11:02

    KAYWhen she met David and they married and they had Karly, did you think that her life might turn around and that she would...

  • 11:11:08

    ZACHARIASI certainly did. I -- we loved David. She brought David to meet us and we loved him from the get go. And in my mind, I thought, well, she had been adopted, she gave up a baby for adoption, now marrying David and having a child of her own would help her settle her and, you know, calm some of the tender places in her.

  • 11:11:30

    KAYRight, but then she and David split up. You were worried about that.

  • 11:11:33

    ZACHARIASI was. She split up from David, pretty quickly, within a year of Karly's birth. And they had had problems, off and on. A lot of it they had kept to themselves. So I didn't -- wasn't aware of it. Most people, I think at that time, they're just very private people.

  • 11:11:52

    KAYWhat made you decide that you wanted to write the story of Karly's little life and her death?

  • 11:12:00

    ZACHARIASWell, I think as a writer, this isn't my first book, writing is how I process everything in life. Whether it's an encounter with someone or whether it's trauma. And so that just is natural for me. But it was the next day after I met Sarah there in Bend, Ore., in 2007, that my husband told me that Karly had been murdered. And it was in that moment, really, in sort of a knowing kind of way, I knew that I would write about this story if David gave his blessings. I wasn't going to write it unless David agreed to it.

  • 11:12:39

    KAYInitially, David was the main suspect in Karly's murder.

  • 11:12:42

    ZACHARIASHe was and that was shocking to me. And, of course, you just -- you think about all the what if's, if Sarah and I hadn't had that fight, if I'd stayed actively involved in her life and you know, could I've helped steer the investigation otherwise because I knew David was a really terrific and loving and devoted father.

  • 11:13:10

    KAYBut it wasn't David...

  • 11:13:11


  • 11:13:11

    KAY...who was initially sent to jail?

  • 11:13:13

    ZACHARIASIt wasn't.

  • 11:13:14

    KAYIt was Karly's...

  • 11:13:16

    ZACHARIASMother's boyfriend.

  • 11:13:16

    KAY…mother's boyfriend.

  • 11:13:18

    ZACHARIASRight. And in reality, Sarah testified in court that she and Shawn had broken up. Shawn Field is his name. That she and Shawn had broken up three weeks before Karly's death. But they continued the relationship as if they hadn't broken up.

  • 11:13:34

    KAYAnd have you -- at what point did you learn what had actually happened?

  • 11:13:39

    ZACHARIASNot until I started writing the story. When I started pulling all of the investigative reports together, I interviewed dozens of people. The defense attorney in this case actually turned over all of his files to me, to investigate. So to really learn all the details of what had transpired, didn't come about until I'd put all that paperwork on the floor and being -- yeah, going through 6,000 pages of documents.

  • 11:14:08

    KAYKaren, how many times were red flags raised before Karly was killed and you think she could've been saved?

  • 11:14:19

    ZACHARIASThe first sign of abuse began in late October, early November of 2004.

  • 11:14:25

    KAYShe was how old?

  • 11:14:26

    ZACHARIASShe was two and a half at the time. She'd turn there in June of the following -- I mean, January of the following year. So David and Karly had just gotten back from a trip to Ireland. David is a native of Ireland. And they had just gotten back from that trip and David had a job up in Portland, was living in Corvallis to keep Karly's routine the same. And she was going to her daycare provider and was actually the daycare provider who noticed some changes in Karly. She became lethargic, she wasn't -- she wanted to sleep all the time instead of play. She was hungry. Sarah had begun a relationship with Shawn Field in September of 2004. So just a few weeks, really, less than six weeks before the first hint of abuse began.

  • 11:15:16

    KAYAnd what did the daycare provider do with that information -- with those observations?

  • 11:15:21

    ZACHARIASWith those observations, she called the children protective services and filed a report. She told David and Sarah both that she was doing that. David encouraged her to file the report, Sarah got mad. Her...

  • 11:15:34

    KAYDid David confront Sarah and say, what's happened to my daughter?

  • 11:15:37

    ZACHARIASYes. Over and over and over and over again and every single time, Sarah lied about what was happening. She swore that Karly was never left alone with Shawn. Shawn had an older daughter who, by all accounts, he was devoted to.

  • 11:15:53

    KAYAnd Shawn had no history of child abuse, no record...

  • 11:15:56


  • 11:15:56

    KAY...of child abuse, nothing...

  • 11:15:57


  • 11:15:57

    KAY...on his record that would indicate...

  • 11:15:59


  • 11:15:59

    KAY...that he might've been a threat to Karly?

  • 11:16:01

    ZACHARIASNo. Well, there had been one reported instance of domestic violence with his ex-wife.

  • 11:16:08

    KAYWhat did the state child protective services do with the information that they were given by the daycare provider?

  • 11:16:14

    ZACHARIASSo the person who came out to do the investigation was Matt Stark from Children's Protective Services. And he made arrangements with David and Sarah for -- David and Sarah made arrangements for Karly to be seen by their medical provider, primarily Sarah's medical provider. So they did a forensic interview of sorts at the medical provider's office. But Matt Stark was no qualified to do a forensics interview. The provider was not a pediatrician and she did not have the necessary specific training to deal with child abuse. So she never identified it as child abuse.

  • 11:17:08

    KAYDid they ask Sarah what the living arrangement was with her boyfriend?

  • 11:17:12

    ZACHARIASYes, over and over again. And Sarah insisted -- Sarah kept her own apartment the entire time she was in a relationship with Shawn Field. Sarah insisted to everyone that Karly was never alone with Shawn.

  • 11:17:24

    KAYAnd they believed her?

  • 11:17:26

    ZACHARIASThey took her word over David's.

  • 11:17:30

    KAYAfter that, the child protective services, what happened? They got this information. They'd done this rather cursory investigation. What was the next step?

  • 11:17:38

    ZACHARIASSo, when they did this cursory investigation, they ruled the case closed and said that Karly was just anxious over her living conditions, which actually became really foretelling. And so they again, made a safety plan with Sarah, that Karly would not be left alone with Shawn. But they focused their investigation on David Sheehan and told her that he was the focus of their investigation. So then they closed the case and a then a week later, this is December of 2004, Sarah brings Karly to David after a week at her place and Karly is completely bald. If you go to my site at, you can see the pictures.

  • 11:18:26

    KAYOkay, the book is "A Silence of Mockingbirds." Karen Spears Zacharias will have more of Karly's story, of her abuse and her murder and what could've been done to stop it. After this break, we'll be taking your calls and questions, 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number. Please ring in with your questions for Karen Spears Zacharias, after this short break.

  • 11:20:05

    KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. You've joined my conversation with Karen Spears Zacharias. She is the author of "A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder." It is an investigative account of the abuse and murder of a young little girl called Karly who died who Karen knew. I want to -- we were talking a little bit about this process of how you put this story together. At what stage did authorities convict Karly's boyfriend? What was the shift that they made that took them away from focusing on Karly's dad David Sheehan to focusing on the boyfriend?

  • 11:20:41

    ZACHARIASIt was Karly's death that made the focus change from Karly's father to Sean in June of 2005 when she was murdered. Not until then did they shift. So basically you had an investigation that began in November of 2004 and it remains focused on David until Karly's death. And in fact, at the hospital as Karly's body is being viewed by the doctors, Sarah continued to insist that it was David who had done this thing, even though David had been out of town for a week.

  • 11:21:18

    KAYAnd how did authorities after Karly died start piecing together it was Sean when they could have done it before she had died?

  • 11:21:25

    ZACHARIASYeah, they could have done it before she died. There were many, many failures along the way. So after that second investigation was open when Karly showed up at David's house in December completely bald like a chemo patient with bruises on her David called Children's Services. He took pictures of Karly, he called Children's Services. But it was a Saturday. He didn't get a call back from DHS -- or Children's Services until Tuesday. And even then he was called in again and he was told by the Corvallis police detective and Matt Start (sp?) from Children's Services that he was a primary suspect in the ongoing investigation into Karly Sheehan's abuse.

  • 11:22:08

    KAYAnd even when he had picked her up from the house and she was bald and she had bruises on her body and he documented that, they didn't think, hold on a second, we need to start broadening our focus here.

  • 11:22:17

    ZACHARIASWell, they did broaden it a little bit. David didn't pick her up actually. They normally picked up at Starbucks but Sarah called that day and said that Karly was ill and that she needed to bring her to him. David thought she had the flu. And when Sarah brought her looking like this chemo patient he was just in total shock. So the investigators did broaden. They did go -- a detective from the Corvallis police department came out that evening, interviewed David. Told David if your story doesn't check out I'll be back to arrest you basically.

  • 11:22:52

    ZACHARIASAnd so he went to Sarah and Sean and the entire time whenever they would go to see Sean, Sean would never invite them in the house. I would think that that would be one of the first clues. He would always talk to them out on the porch but he would -- and he would not allow his own daughter to be interviewed without him present and for the most part never allowed Sarah to be interviewed without him present.

  • 11:23:17

    KAYBut Sarah protected Sean.

  • 11:23:18

    ZACHARIASEvery time. And that's not unusual. I wish I could say that it's unusual but it is not unusual. And one of the surprising factors for me as a journalist in researching the story was to find out how many moms are really complicit in the own abuse of their children and, in fact, just so many surprising statistics. Eighty percent of all child abuse is perpetuated by biological parents, the bulk of that being perpetuated by the mother in the form of neglect.

  • 11:23:50

    KAYWhy did Sarah protect Sean?

  • 11:23:54

    ZACHARIASI think only Sarah can answer that question. I don't know.

  • 11:23:57

    KAYHave you ever asked her?

  • 11:23:58

    ZACHARIASI have asked her. I asked her to read the manuscript and to tell her side of the story but she declined.

  • 11:24:05

    KAYDoes she recognize now what Sean was doing to Karly and what he did to Karly?

  • 11:24:11

    ZACHARIASOh, sure. I mean, once there was a trial that took place she certainly knew that Sean had done this thing to Karly. Sean was taking pictures of the abuse up until 20 minutes before Karly died.

  • 11:24:25

    KAYHow did he kill her?

  • 11:24:27

    ZACHARIASBlunt force trauma was the forensic decision testified to in trial.

  • 11:24:35

    KAYAnd did he admit that he had done all of these things?

  • 11:24:38

    ZACHARIASNo. He still denies that he did this.

  • 11:24:42

    KAYBut he was taking photographs.

  • 11:24:43

    ZACHARIASHe was taking photographs. And I've seen those photographs and they're very -- I mean, I describe them in the book. But, you know, what's heartbreaking to me is that last photograph of Karly taken 20 minutes before her death, I mean, you can tell that he has told her to smile for the camera because here she is with a completely ruptured eyeball. I mean, she looked like Mohammad Ali after he lost a fight. And she's trying to smile, trying to please Sean.

  • 11:25:18

    KAYAnd Sarah was there? She was present at that time?

  • 11:25:22

    ZACHARIASWell, that's what none of us are sure of, right. There are only three people who know what happened. One was Sean, one was Sarah and the other was Karly. She testified that she was not there at the time.

  • 11:25:34

    KAYKaren, what did the trial find? What came out at the trial?

  • 11:25:39

    ZACHARIASIn regards to Sean?

  • 11:25:41

    KAYIn regards to Sean and also in regards to the failures of the people that should have protected Karly.

  • 11:25:47

    ZACHARIASWell, certainly there were many points along the way. When the police detective came out that night in December of 2004 and told David that he was going to be back if David's story didn't check out, I mean, at that point, I mean, I've been an investigative reporter for a long time. I know that when a police officer goes to investigate you don't investigate two suspects together. He should have separated Sarah and Sean and interviewed them alone. That should have been his first decision but he didn't do that ever. In fact, he just took Sean's word.

  • 11:26:23

    ZACHARIASAnd I think a large part of that is due to the fact that David was not an American citizen. He was from Ireland and spoke with a very heavy accent. Sean was a hometown boy. His parents lived on the golf course and his dad had been a longtime employee with Hewlett Packard. So I think that it was a matter of, you know, the devil you know versus the one you don't.

  • 11:26:48

    KAYSo they were inclined to believe Sean and not inclined to believe David.

  • 11:26:52

    ZACHARIASExactly, even though statistically we know that third party abuse is common.

  • 11:26:59

    KAYHow much did the trial and what came after the trial shock the local community?

  • 11:27:04

    ZACHARIASI can't...

  • 11:27:04

    KAYHow much soul searching was there in Bend, Ore. when they heard what had happened to Karly?

  • 11:27:09

    ZACHARIASWell, the death actually took place in Corvallis, Ore. but there was quite a bit of soul searching, continues to be. I did a recent book event there and it was packed. I think that this is a real concern for the people of Corvallis. I mean, I am an Oregon State University graduate myself. I know Corvallis to be a great community. But the point is is that child abuse is not something that happens in the poor man's community. This is one of the most educated communities in all of Oregon and Karly was surrounded by educated, caring, nurturing people and she still ended up brutally murdered.

  • 11:27:48

    KAYWe should put this in some context. One child dies every five hours in the United States...

  • 11:27:53


  • 11:27:54

    KAY...of neglect or abuse.

  • 11:27:55

    ZACHARIASRight. With...

  • 11:27:56

    KAYAnd the statistics are shocking.

  • 11:27:59

    ZACHARIAS...with neglect leading the way right now, 78 percent. So neglect is the primary way for children dying of child abuse. And most of that is perpetuated by the mother.

  • 11:28:14

    KAYWhy are the numbers so much higher in the United States than they are in any other western industrialized country?

  • 11:28:21

    ZACHARIASPrimarily, because we have no national policy to address child abuse. There is no national database even for collecting these numbers on child abuse. So for me I put it in perspective this way. My father died in Viet Nam when I was young so I teach First Amendment rights at Central Washington University. And we talk a lot about Dover and the soldiers coming back and the lack of journalists, all of that. So in the ten years we've been at war we've lost -- over 6300 soldiers have come back to Dover and those are all flag-covered coffins.

  • 11:28:55

    ZACHARIASIf you, in that same time period, take a look at child abuse, imagine 20,000 caskets covered in baby blankets because that's how many children we've lost right here on U.S. soil during the same time we've been at war. Twenty-thousand children dead, the bulk of those ages four and under.

  • 11:29:17

    KAYAnd there is no...

  • 11:29:18

    ZACHARIAS...national policy to address it. None.

  • 11:29:23

    KAYIs there a way to flag up the children who are at risk like Karly? Is there an easier way that we could all be able to tell?

  • 11:29:33

    ZACHARIASWell, part of the problem is that the agency's task with dealing with this are working, you know, fighting and scrambling for those dollars. I mean, we give more money -- as the book points out, we give more money for recruitment with NASCAR than we do in designated funds for child abuse. So they're all scrambling for the dollars and that makes them fractious.

  • 11:29:57

    KAYLet's go to the phones now to Dee who joins us from Fort Washington, Md. Dee, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show" to speak to Karen Spears Zacharias.

  • 11:30:09

    DEEHi. I really appreciate you writing this book to shine a light on child abuse and that it happens in affluent communities as well. You mentioned that you had access to the defense attorney's files. And as an attorney I'm just curious how attorney privilege was dealt with and how you got access to those.

  • 11:30:28

    ZACHARIASYeah, I mean, he just -- after the trial was over, he just handed them over to me. And I think the large part -- I mean, I think he had a motivation for doing that. I think he wanted to raise awareness about Sarah's involvement in the murder of her own child. She was never charged with anything, not even neglect.

  • 11:30:48

    KAYTalk about that decision, that judicial decision not to charge Sarah.

  • 11:30:52

    ZACHARIASThat was the D.A.'s decision. He made it within the first 48 hours of Karly's death.

  • 11:30:58

    KAYThis was Scott Heiser.

  • 11:30:58

    ZACHARIASScott Heiser. And when I asked him why he made a decision not to charge her with anything he said he felt that she had suffered enough. And that offended me as a journalist because I know that had the shoes been reversed, had that been David there's no way that Scott Heiser would've said he had suffered enough. They never felt that David had suffered enough from the get go.

  • 11:31:23

    KAYAnd the courts are -- I mean, the evidence is there, right, the courts are more lenient on women...

  • 11:31:27


  • 11:31:28 these particular incidents.

  • 11:31:28

    ZACHARIASYes. And when it comes to family law, when it comes to children our courts in the U.S. are far more lenient and bias in favor of women.

  • 11:31:39

    KAYNow Sarah testified before the Grand Jury.

  • 11:31:42

    ZACHARIASShe did.

  • 11:31:42

    KAYAnd what did she say at that testimony?

  • 11:31:45

    ZACHARIASWell, I don't have privilege to know what she testified to at that Grand Jury.

  • 11:31:48

    KAYAnd she's never told you.

  • 11:31:49


  • 11:31:51

    KAYAnd was that part of the deal for her not being prosecuted?

  • 11:31:54

    ZACHARIASWe believe so. Scott Heiser doesn't say that but obviously -- and the thing is they didn't need it, right, because what convicted Sean Field was Sean Field's own action taking those photos of Karly.

  • 11:32:10

    KAYAs soon as Karly had died, what was the sequence of events then in terms of getting -- from the moment she died to getting Sean convicted?

  • 11:32:19

    ZACHARIASSo what happened was Sarah had woken up that morning and Karly had already had that ruptured eyeball. She had been out late the night before partying and had left Karly with Sean, even though she reportedly had broken up with Sean. So we know that he was abusing Karly that evening because his own daughter testified to that in court. And so...

  • 11:32:45

    KAYThe daughter saw it.

  • 11:32:46

    ZACHARIASDidn't see it, but she heard it, but she was eight years old, right. You know, she was eight years old. So she stayed...

  • 11:32:55

    KAYIt must be terrifying for her.

  • 11:32:58

    ZACHARIASYou know, I consider her one of the other victims in this case and so does David. But -- so she did testify to that, but -- so the abuse had been going on the night before and Karly woke up with this ruptured eyeball already. And she complained to her mother that her eye was hurting, she had a headache and her mom's response was to call her dad and ask what to do if a child had an eye allergy. There is no adult out there who could look at those pictures of Karly and think for a minute that that was an eye allergy.

  • 11:33:33

    ZACHARIASSarah testified later in court that she'd seen bruises on the bottoms of Karly's feet, which is a common form of abuse for children is to harm them in places that won't be readily seen. So she left Karly for two hours with Sean. She came back and she testified that Sean had blocked the room and would not let her in to see Karly. And when she went in there Karly was not breathing. Sarah made the 911 call. And if you Google A Silence of Mockingbird on YouTube you can hear that 911 call.

  • 11:34:11

    KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us do call. 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number or you can send us an email to Let's talk now to Stacey who calls us from Raleigh, N.C. Stacey, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:34:30

    STACEYHi, how are you doing today?

  • 11:34:31

    KAYGood thank you.

  • 11:34:32

    STACEYI want to speak to the fact that the mom was complicit. One of the things that the media really has a hard time covering is the fact that a lot of the times that the women that are in this kind of situation, they're not thinking clearly because they've gone through their own abuse. I'm a sexual abuse victim and my mom was -- I found out later that she was also sexually abused as a child and she was complicit in my view. And it's taken a long time for me to actually come to grips with that. She will deny it for the rest of her life that she was complicit of course because that would mean admitting to what happened to her.

  • 11:35:11

    STACEYSo I think that while it's a horrible, horrible situation it goes back. It goes farther back than anybody can imagine. So the -- I think one of the things that people with their horror is to actually look at the families and look at the families before and the families before because it's not something that just happens in one isolated case.

  • 11:35:36

    KAYStacey, thank you for joining the program and for sharing that, and you raise a very good point. And in this instance Sarah herself had been adopted, right?

  • 11:35:45

    ZACHARIASShe had been adopted. And, first of all, I'd just like to say, Stacey, I'm so sorry that you suffered that way. And, you know, it's heartbreaking that moms are complicit in these sorts of things and I hate that for you. In Sarah's case, she was raised in a very loving home. I knew her parents very well. There was no hint or sign of any abuse that had gone on. And, in fact, that's part of some of the mythology that is played into. We do know that approximately, you know, a quarter of those who are abused will go on to abuse. But the majority do not re-abuse.

  • 11:36:26

    KAYI think it's stunning this idea -- and we're getting calls about this, about what happened to Sarah. Because we have a call from Robert who calls us from Augusta, Ga. Asking was there any punishment for Sarah. But none, right?

  • 11:36:39

    ZACHARIASNone, none.

  • 11:36:40

    KAYThere was no comeback against somebody who was complicit in the death of her child.

  • 11:36:45

    ZACHARIASNo. And in fact I document in the book that Sarah then went on to establish a pseudo-nonprofit within a year or so after the trial. And she was flown to New York by Glamour Magazine and feted as Reader of the Year. She was showered with gifts by TAG Huer and by Uma Thurman and by Glamour Magazine for reportedly setting up a nonprofit called Karly's Angels that was nothing more than going online and filling out the nonprofit status. So she got thousands of dollars, monies which she then spent and was never accounted for. And that was probably the most exploitive thing she did for her daughter's death.

  • 11:37:30

    KAYThe book is "A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder." The author is Karen Spears Zacharias and she's with me in the studio. After this short break, we will be taking more of your calls with your questions and comments. 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number here. Do stay with us.

  • 11:40:05

    KAYWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Katty Kay sitting in for Diane. I'm joined in the studio by Karen Spears Zacharias. She's the author of "A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder." It's the story of little Karly who was abused and then killed by the boyfriend of her mother. And we've been talking about the case and the trial. I want to read some -- an email, a Tweet that came into us during the break. And it says, "The problem is greater in the U.S. because American courts give too much deference to mothers which percolates down through the system." Do you think that's true, Karen?

  • 11:40:39

    ZACHARIASI do think that's true. I think that there's a definite bias in the court systems. I saw it as a reporter when I worked in the court systems. And I think that it certainly came into place here. I've seen it in many cases. And I think that's changing some I think as we raise awareness about the biases. You know, we're all about apple pie, flags and mom in the U.S. And so our natural inclination is to believe that moms will always make decisions for children and that's not true.

  • 11:41:13

    KAYOkay. Here's somebody writing from the other position which is Jason who writes to us, "I haven't heard this question asked. What reasons does David give that he continued to return the child to Sarah. I think David's failure was the biggest. He didn't protect his child."

  • 11:41:27

    ZACHARIASI have discussed this many times with David. And I think that David would not disagree with Jason. In his mind, you know, in the hindsight, David certainly wishes that he had taken Karly and run. But David was not a U.S. citizen. If he ran, that meant deportation David and that meant that he would never seen Karly again. And that weighed heavily on David's mind as an immigrant to this country.

  • 11:41:56

    KAYBut he had primary custody of her.

  • 11:41:58

    ZACHARIASHe had primary custody in that they had shared custody. And so he had the bulk of care just because Sarah was partying and didn't want the care of Karly.

  • 11:42:07

    KAYOnce he began to suspect that Shawn was abusing Karly, I mean, the incident, for example, where she turned up and her head had been shaved and he saw the bruises, why at that point didn't he say to Sarah, sorry, you can't have her anymore?

  • 11:42:21

    ZACHARIASWell, because David trusted the child protective services, which I think is something that all Americans across this country are doing. They are trusting child protective services which frankly is a misnomer. They're not child protective services. They're not even called in until a child is injured or under threat of harm somehow, so it's a misnomer. And in fact their whole mission is bifurcated. They're supposed to protect the child while strengthening the family. And we know that 80 percent of all child abuse is perpetuated by biological parents.

  • 11:42:58

    ZACHARIASHow can you be strengthening the family and leaving a child in harm's way? It takes approximately two years from the time that child protective services gets involved with a case before a child will be removed from the care of a parent we know is abusing that child.

  • 11:43:21

    KAYBut that's too long, in two years.

  • 11:43:22

    ZACHARIASRight. And that's why we end up...

  • 11:43:24

    KAYWe've seen with Karly what can happen.

  • 11:43:26

    ZACHARIASRight. That's why we end up in 10 years 20,000 kids dead, most of them ages 4 and under. I mean, I think that David, you know, we're looking at this now in a book where I've laid out everything. That's not how it started. It was not so obvious. You had a medical doctor who was saying, well, we think Karly's doing this to herself. We had children's protective services saying along with the Corvallis police department, well, we investigated and there's nothing funny going on Shawn or Sarah's. And we had Sarah insisting time and time and time again that she was never leaving Karly alone with Shawn.

  • 11:44:08

    KAYLet's go to Pat who calls us from Heber Springs. Pat, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:44:13

    PATYes, thank you for taking my call. I just wonder why -- in psychology class we studied in anthropology that in animal groups when one male is defeated by another, the new male takes over and the first thing he does is he commits infanticide. And we human beings are animals. We are primates just like the baboons in the study and the chimpanzees. And why we don't realize the danger when a new male is faced with an existing family, that there are psychological demands there that maybe that person doesn't even understand.

  • 11:44:53

    ZACHARIASAnd I think that's a good point. We do know that part of the problem -- again, back to the national policy, part of the problem for children's protective services is they're not tasked with investigating third party abuse. They're tasked with investigating familial abuse. So when you're dealing with third party abuse, that's a whole different line. That's law enforcement. That's not children protective services.

  • 11:45:22

    ZACHARIASAnd I think most Americans like David think that children protective services is tasked with protecting children period, not needing a flow chart to figure out who's abusing a child. And in a society where, you know, frankly we have about only half the people getting married, so these children are being exposed to more and more third party potential abuse than ever before.

  • 11:45:51

    KAYThat's why I've heard the numbers are higher in the United States compared to other countries. Partly it's because there are so many young, single mothers...

  • 11:45:59


  • 11:45:59

    KAY...who are -- and the children are then vulnerable to their boyfriends, exactly the same case as Karly. There are not very many social safety nets and high incarceration rates. And you put all of that together and you get a lot of stresses on young families...

  • 11:46:13


  • 11:46:14

    KAY..and on young children. And the children are the ones that are suffering from this.

  • 11:46:17

    ZACHARIASAnd the more you expose a child -- I mean, Karly through her mother had been exposed to multiple men since the divorce from David, so Shawn was just one more. And, in fact, I share a letter that David had written to say to Sarah, you know, look, you need to pay attention. Karly doesn't even ask for you anymore. Unfortunately David, like a lot of divorced husbands, didn't send that note to Sarah because he didn't want to look like the vindictive ex-husband, which Sarah repeatedly accused him of being.

  • 11:46:51

    KAYLet's go to Pam who calls us from Houston, Texas. Pam, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:46:57


  • 11:46:58

    KAYHi, Pam.

  • 11:47:00

    PAMI was married to a man who repeatedly abused my oldest. We had four sons together. And he was beginning to show signs of abusing my younger children. He while we were separated sent my younger son home with bruises and they told me that he had thrown them on their heads. And I had called child protective services and we had had investigations several times. But he was a very charming and skillful liar and things were just dismissed. But he threatened multiple times to take the children away if I pressed matters or if I sued for divorce. And I felt that if I left him that he would be alone with the children and the abuse would be worse.

  • 11:47:49

    PAMAnd so I stayed with him for a very long time thinking that my presence would mitigate the circumstances, that if I wasn't there that I couldn't -- I wouldn’t know what would happen. And I finally did divorce him and I feel that my children are better off. He didn't take them away. It was not the type of circumstances that you are describing with Sarah, but I think that some -- you can't really judge every woman's circumstance. I didn't feel for a long time that I could take my children out of the situation. I thought that they would disappear and be in a worse situation.

  • 11:48:33

    KAYPam, are your children safe now?

  • 11:48:38

    PAMNo. My oldest son unfortunately lives with his father and I think that he has suffered and continues to suffer great psychological damage.

  • 11:48:52

    KAYAnd do...

  • 11:48:52

    PAMI think...

  • 11:48:53 you still talk to the child protective services about your concerns, Pam?

  • 11:49:00

    PAMChild protective services is very upset about our most recent case. He was not supposed to see the children for a great period of time. Unfortunately he did. And when they were interviewed for the case, they broke down and all they would say is, I love my daddy and I don't want him to go to jail, I don't want him to be in trouble, and they were very upset about that, which is one of the reasons that the cases could not proceed. And the caseworker was very upset. She said, the children, even though they are obviously being hurt and this is not a good situation for them, don't appear to be in immediate danger of death and that is our primary concern that we have to do triage on all of our cases. And this case clearly fell below the line.

  • 11:49:54

    KAYPam, I'm gonna put you onto Karen and I was gonna ask Karen. Karen, what can Pam do now? Who can she reach out to?

  • 11:50:02

    ZACHARIASWell, I hope that Pam has people in her life that she can reach out to, but I really hope that those children of Pam have an adult in their life who they can go to. I hope that you get them counseling. But, I mean, Pam brings up some important issues. I mean, as families don't have social nets in place, as we become a more and more isolated community, then you do get that feeling that Pam talks about of being stuck, of the fear of, you know, in her mind she was able to rationalize, well, it's better that at least I'm here and I know they're being abused, but I'm here to help mitigate that abuse.

  • 11:50:50

    ZACHARIASAnd it's not uncommon for children's protective services to come back. I wish I could tell you the number of times I've had medical doctors or people who work with our children abuse assessment centers, so you can go online to National Children's Alliance. And the National Children's Alliance will show you across the board where those child abuse assessment centers are in your own state. Those people are there to help. But those abuse centers, I mean, they deal with these kind of issues every single day. And the directors have told me repeatedly sometimes they have to go to children's protective services and say, is it going to take the death of a child before you intervene?

  • 11:51:37

    ZACHARIASBut right -- like, children have no money. They have no voice. And so during an election year issues that relate to children, that's the easiest place to make your financial cuts. Across the board state budgets are slashing cuts. We've done it in Oregon, doing it elsewhere, slashing cuts to programs that protect children. We do not value children in this society.

  • 11:52:06

    KAYPam -- oh, Karen, give me the website address for your book which has links to resources that Pam might find useful, right?

  • 11:52:13

    ZACHARIASYes, it's, z-a-c-h.

  • 11:52:17

    KAYAnd if you go there, Pam, you'll find links to some of the resources that Karen is talking about and we wish you and your children the very best of luck. Let's go to Franklin in Cincinnati, Ohio. Franklin, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:52:32

    FRANKLINYes, thank you very much. While I was holding, when she said that children's protective service was a misnomer, that's one of the most profound statements that I've heard, because my granddaughter was born -- my daughter had two daughters. They were born a year apart on exactly the same day. And my daughter had a drinking problem and was sent to prison. And my wife was taking care of the children. And they were doing wonderful. And the biological father stepped in who was just a real monster and was investigated by the children's protective service and how they found him fit to even watch the kids.

  • 11:53:20

    FRANKLINBut anyway, he ended up murdering the youngest one, 17 months old, with his bare hands. And he's on trial right now as we speak. And he would come to pick the baby up from my wife's house. And one time she literally passed out, the baby did, when my wife was handing them over to the biological father. So, I mean, and children's protective service, they were told all these things, how the baby was just scared to death to go with him. And actually when he would visit, my other daughter in jail, he would only take the one daughter that -- I mean, he literally loved the one daughter and would never harm her or do anything, but the other one he just mistreated all the time.

  • 11:54:10

    FRANKLINAnd he wouldn't take her to visit because she had bruises and stuff on her. And he said, well, she hit the end -- she was on the coffee table, she's trying to walk, she did this, she did that. And all this stuff was reported to the children's protective services. And like Karen said, they did nothing. You know, they could've stepped in and gave the baby back to my wife who was taking wonderful care of it and she would've been alive today. But instead the biological father, he stepped in, I don't know why 'cause he didn't even want the baby, and ended up killing with his bare hands.

  • 11:54:44

    KAYFranklin, I am so sorry for what happened to you and what happened to your granddaughter, of course. It is a tragic story. And we are hearing, Karen, the calls we're getting into this program, the emails, I have too many to get through, of people who have gone through similar experiences to Pam, to Franklin, of their own children or their grandchildren that have been abused.

  • 11:55:05

    ZACHARIASEvery time that I speak I have grandparents come out who tell me about the custody battles they're raging for grandchildren that they know are being abused. Franklin, I just hate hearing this story. I wish I could tell you it's unusual. It's not unusual. It should be, but it's not and that's the crisis that we're in. When the BBC came and did that wonderful investigative story about child abuse in America, one of the things they called it was epidemic. It's in epidemic proportions here in America. But again it goes back to funding issues, when you have to make hard cuts. It's easiest to make them to the population that can't complain and dead children do not talk.

  • 11:55:51

    KAYKaren, we have just a minute left on the program. You're walking with national groups to help protect children from the kind of abuse that we've been talking about. What are some of the efforts?

  • 11:56:00

    ZACHARIASWell, one of the wonderful ones we have in Oregon is Representative Sarah Gelser started something called Karly's Law. You can find out more information about it on my website at But we're hoping to see Karly's Law go into national. It requires two things. Within 48 hours of a report of injury, those injuries will be photographed and that child will be assessed by a trained forensic specialist trained in child abuse. Had that been done in Karly's case, she would be alive today. And that's true for many, many children.

  • 11:56:37

    KAYKarly's Law needs to become national law.

  • 11:56:39

    ZACHARIASIt does.

  • 11:56:40

    KAYKaren Spears Zacharias, thank you so much for joining the program. It's a heartbreaking story and thank you for the work that you're doing...

  • 11:56:47

    ZACHARIASThank you, Katty.

  • 11:56:47

    KAY...on behalf of abused children in this country. The book is "A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder." I'm Katty Kay of the BBC. I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is on a station break. She will be back tomorrow. Thank you all so much for listening.

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