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Remembering for the future

April 22, 2009
Children, both victims of abuse and SIDS, were remembered during a candlelight vigil last Tuesday at Hillview Christian Church near Marengo.

The event, sponsored by Prevent Child Abuse Crawford County, featured presentations by Paoli attorney Susan Umpleby on child protection and Barb Himes of the First Candle program on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Umpleby told the story of a woman in New York who worked to save a child in the 1800s. The child, Mary Ellen Wilson, whose parents were deceased, was turned over to the New York Department of Charities and then placed in a foster home. Loud crying could be heard coming from the home by neighbors who told a woman named Etta Wheeler.

Wheeler went to the house for a visit and saw the child, who was 9 years old but looked 5, washing dishes. There was a whip of twisted leather laying nearby. The child had been beaten repeatedly and had scars and bruises all over her body. It was noted that the girl's face showed nothing but depression and misery.

Although authorities were reluctant to intervene, Wheeler was able to contact the president of Americans for Prevention of Cruelty of Animals, who helped bring the case to the attention of newspapers, got neighbors to testify and sent investigators posing as census workers to the home. In April 1874, the girl testified in court, saying, "My parents are dead, I'm beaten every day with a leather whip, and I'm never told why." The little girl had never even been kissed in her life. The judge took custody of the girl, and she was put in a loving home, where she prospered.

"She went on to become a gentle person," Umpleby said.

Umpleby said that in 2007 there were 3.2 million referrals to child abuse programs — 794,000 cases. That same year, more than 1,050 children died of abuse or neglect. Many were younger than 4 years old.

"Many of those cases of abuse and neglect were committed by biological parents," Umpleby said. "That year, there were 36 child fatalities in Indiana. And nine of those occurred in homes that had been investigated. In 2006, there were 53 children who died in Indiana. In 39 percent of those cases, drugs and alcohol were factors. Most occurred in two-parent homes, many due to marital discord and family problems.

"But authorities can only investigate what is reported. Family, friends, coaches, teachers and even neighbors can help. Anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect is obligated to report it."

Himes spoke about the infant she and her husband lost 27 years ago.

"I am the mother of six," she said. "Five living and one deceased. And I have been involved with SIDS for the last 27 years. Back then, there was very little knowledge about SIDS.

"But in the mid-1990s, we began educating new and expectant parents about the danger of SIDS. The more we investigated, the more we found out we didn't know. And the more we do, the more we realize there's more to be done. Our goal is to keep babies safe while sleeping by bringing this program to your community. It's an educational process.

"The reason I got involved in this program — on Christmas Eve morning, 27 years ago, my husband and I woke up and found our infant son, Jake, not breathing. I remember reading in a newspaper about a family who lost an infant that way just weeks earlier. I didn't think it would happen to us. But I'll never be the same person again. Our innocence was lost. Now, a certain song playing on the radio or even a certain type of weather can take me back 27 years.

"Over 70 percent of marriages that lost a child that way end in divorce. I'm not sure how we got through it without a divorce. But when a baby dies, a whole community cries. Not every parent gets the message about SIDS. That's where you come in.

"Share this information with grandparents, day-care workers, parents and friends. Knowledge is so important. If parents die, that's the past. If a spouse dies, that's the present. If a child dies, that's the future," she said. "The loss of a child is like an open wound.

"When you leave here tonight, take my son Jake with you in your hearts."

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