Posted by Saraline , Tuesday, September 16, 2008 3:37 PM
The other day, I read in somebody's livejournal that she had watched a movie called An American Crime. Afterwards she looked up the true story that the movie was based on and was horrified.
I had not heard about the movie and I was curious, so I looked it up too and learned about the death of Sylvia Likens. (The details of her torture and death may me triggering for survivors of abuse.)
Sylvia Likens was a 16 year old girl in Indiana who, along with her 15 year old sister, Jenny, went to live with a woman named Gertrude Baniszewski and her family in the 1960s. The parents of the Likens girls were travelling carnival workers. When their mother was arrested for shoplifting, their father made an agreement with Baniszewski to board his daughters for 20 dollars a week.
Soon after the girls moved in, Baniszewski began abusing Sylvia and Jenny. The abuse became worse and worse for Sylvia, and Baniszewski allowed her older children and other kids in the neighbourhood to join in. They tortured Sylvia to death. Gertrude Baniszewski received a life sentence for the death, but was granted parole after 18 years.
She was an impoverished single mother of seven children and a survivor of abusive relationships. When Sylvia and Jenny came to live with her, her latest boyfriend, Dennis Lee Wright, had left her with their baby. She may have had postpartum depression and no options for having it treated. Child support payments were sporadic and she made very little income doing laundry and babysitting.
Baniszewski was under a lot of stress and then along came two girls who were not her flesh and blood. She had someone to take out her frustrations on. She had very little control over the path her life had taken but she could have control over the life of defenseless Sylvia. She could make someone as miserable as she was, and it was not one of her own children so she could still be a good mother. She allowed her children and the neighbourhood children to bully Sylvia. Instead of empathizing with Sylvia when her daughter's boyfriend practiced his judo moves on her and relating her own experiences with abusive males, she let him get on with it.
The situation with Sylvia got out of control and perhaps it was out of Baniszewski's control. At her parole hearing in 1985, she claimed to have little memory of the time that the Likens girls spent at her house. "I'm not sure what role I had in it," she said, "because I was on drugs. I never really knew her... I take full responsibility for whatever happened to Sylvia."
I am not saying that Gertrude Baniszewski's circumstances excuse her actions. I am just saying that maybe if she had had the emotional support and financial support that she needed, maybe she would have become a compassionate person instead of a monster.
The house where the Baniszewski's lived and where Sylvia died had plans to be turned into a women's shelter. However, according to this website (again, there are details here that may be triggering), "It served as a shelter for abused women for a time, but apparently has been boarded up since."
Have things changed for single mothers since the 1960s? Are there resources available to us now that could have stopped Gertrude Baniszewski from going off the deep end? I know several single mothers who have achieved success and I hope to join their ranks when I become a single mother. However, the single mothers that I know have also had to struggle to arrive where they are now.
People witnessed Sylvia's abuse and it was not reported. One would hope that awareness of child abuse could prevent deaths like this. Sadly, deaths like Sylvia's are not something that have been eliminated. Last month, a seven year old girl in Toronto named Katelynn Sampson died under similar circumstances.
More details about Gertrude Baniszewski are available than details about Katelynn Sampson's foster mother. Very little about is known about Donna Irving in comparison but so far I see two differences: Irving had a boyfriend at the time whereas Baniszewski did not, and Katelynn's mother was acquainted with Irving whereas Baniszewski was unknown to Sylvia's parents before their arrangement was made. Was Irving under as much pressure as Baniszewski? I guess we will have to wait and see, but we do know that we still live in a society where a child can "fall through the cracks."