Tragedy inspires Internet effort
The Washington mother of one of Summer Phelps’ playmates and a Connecticut mother moved by chilling news accounts have launched an Internet petition they hope will change child abuse laws following the death of the Spokane 4-year-old.
Though they’re separated by 3,000 miles, Catherine Latour, of Bremerton, and Heather Schlichting, of Connecticut, said they’re joined by outrage over Summer’s death – and fear that it will be forgotten.
“Summer’s case was so horrific,” said Schlichting, 38, reached by phone at her New Milford home. “People have to just stop sitting back and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s too bad.’ ”
By late last week, nearly 150 people from 32 states and three foreign countries had signed Schlichting’s online roster calling for increased scrutiny of child welfare agencies and mandatory federal prison sentences for anyone convicted of hurting or killing a child.
It’s the least the community can do, said Latour, 39, whose 7-year-old daughter, Sierra, spent time last year playing with Summer. Sierra’s dad, Michael Glade, lived briefly with Summer’s mother, Elizabeth Phelps.
“I really felt bad because I thought if I had known her mother better, maybe there could have been a connection between us,” Latour said. “Maybe I could have watched Summer for her. I would have taken her in in a heartbeat.”
Schlichting and Latour have met only on a MySpace Internet site, where they connected after the March 10 death of the preschooler who police said was beaten, bitten, shocked with a dog’s collar and asphyxiated in urine-tainted bathwater.
Summer’s father, Jonathan Lytle, 28, and her stepmother, Adriana Lytle, 32, remain jailed on charges of homicide by abuse in connection with the incident local officials have called the worst case of abuse they’ve seen.
Even from afar, Schlichting said she was haunted by Summer’s death. The Connecticut mother had had experience gathering signatures and lobbying local politicians to make changes in a highway near her home, where a mother and two children died in July 2004.
“If people really start paying attention and send a message and say, ‘Let’s do something,’ they can,” she said.
Several MySpace testimonials recorded after Summer’s death led to the online petition dubbed the “Child Abuse Prevention Act,” Schlichting and Latour said.
The women hope to establish minimum federal prison sentences of 10 years for injury to a child and 25 years to life for killing a child, with no chance for parole, said Schlichting.
Although the vaguely worded petition doesn’t say so, organizers also hope to change laws to require state-contracted workers to check on all children in a home they visit, Latour said.
A nurse from the state First Steps program visited the Lytle home on the day Summer died. Jonathan Lytle told police he took Summer for a ride in a car to avoid the nurse’s scrutiny.
“That is something we think would have saved Summer,” Latour said.
While they’re at it, the women also would like to make it illegal for people convicted on drug, domestic violence or child abuse charges to home-school their children.
It’s not clear, however, how effective their Internet effort will be. The names sprouting on Schlichting’s site and others don’t meet legal standards for signature gathering, said Cathy Allen, president and CEO of The Connections Group, a Seattle political consulting agency. In Washington, it’s too late to put an initiative on an upcoming ballot.
That point’s not lost even on those who signed the petition. Brittany Pierson, 26, of Priest River, Idaho, added her name to the list after getting an e-mail link to the MySpace site but said she has no illusion about changing laws.
“People can sign these until they’re blue in the face, but what’s to say they haven’t signed their names 20 times?” she said Friday.
Still, there’s value in raising awareness of the need to prevent child abuse, Pierson added.
“So many people anymore are so scared to say anything,” she said. “Heaven forbid you swat your child in the grocery store. You’re afraid you’ll be turned in for child abuse. But for the children who actually are being abused, they just stand by and let it go.”
Raising awareness among state or federal lawmakers is Schlichting and Latour’s best bet for success. For that, the Internet may be just the thing, said Allen, who has spent 15 years advising political candidates and campaigns.
“I think it has merit,” she said.
Internet petitions are a good way to reach people under age 40, but more important, they’re a way to attract people who’ve already demonstrated a willingness to take action on an issue, Allen said.
“You have a ready-made group of people you can e-mail and say, ‘Despite this interest, elected officials failed to respond,’ and you might consider that when it comes time to vote,” Allen said. “Right now, that e-mail list of activists who care about an issue is gold.”
One of those who care is Michael Glade, 41, who lived with Summer and her mother in a house in Poulsbo. He said Elizabeth Phelps, now 23, was a conscientious mother to the little girl, who suffered from severe asthma.
“There was always a meal every single night, Summer always had clean clothes, she had a bath every night,” he said. “She was a very, very good mom.”
Hearing of Summer’s death “was kind of like somebody just kicked me in the stomach,” said Glade, a finish carpenter. He signed his wife’s petition in hopes of helping other children avoid a fate he can’t bring himself to talk about.
“It’s one thing hearing a story about a kid,” he said. “It’s another thing when you know them and you lived with them and you loved them.”