The disappearance of Shaylyn Ammerman and her subsequent death played out like a parent’s worst nightmare.
Kassie Smithey watched the story of the 1-year-old Spencer girl unfold with increasing levels of horror. A mother of two, she couldn’t imagine anyone could do this to a child. A native of Owen County, she felt a connection to Shaylyn’s parents and all of those affected by her death.
The same questions flashed through her mind: Why didn’t anyone stop this? How could this predator get so close to an innocent child?
“I went into panicked-mom mode,” Smithey said. “My family and I just couldn’t get over it, talking about it.”
Smithey’s horror turned to anger and then motivation. She and her husband, Greenwood-based family counselor Adam Smithey, are spearheading an effort to help identify and stop child abuse in Indiana.
The Smitheys have started a fund with the hopes of training school officials, civic leaders and anyone else to look for the signs of abuse.
Their goal is to create community-wide networks throughout central Indiana to make sure no other child will have to suffer like Shaylyn did.
“The more awareness people have, the fewer cases of abuse there would be. If more people are looking out for it, sexual predators are less likely to have that opportunity,” Kassie Smithey said.
According to child abuse prevention advocates Darkness to Light, 1 in 10 children in the U.S. will be sexually abused before they turn 18.
Nearly 70 percent of all sexual assaults, including those in adults, were perpetrated on children. About 90 percent of those victims know their attacker.
“For so long, we were taught, ‘stranger danger.’ But it’s not that — it’s people you know who are in your home, even family members who you turn a blind eye to,” Adam Smithey said.
Ten days after Shaylyn’s body was found, Kassie Smithey felt like she was squirming out of her skin. Pacing in her Morgan County home, she was compelled to do something but didn’t know what.
Researching child abuse online, she was shocked to learn just how prevalent sexual child abuse, particularly perpetrated by family members or close friends, has been.
“When I learned the statistics, I learned how naive I’ve been with my own children,” Kassie Smithey said.
At the same time, she found resources that could help. Foremost was an organization that intrigued her. Darkness to Light works to raise awareness by educating adults about the steps they can take to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to child sexual abuse.
“Researching child abuse online, I realized how uneducated I was. I figured I probably wasn’t the only one,” Kassie Smithey said.
Her initial idea was to conduct a one-time fundraising event for the organization while also giving people tips and education about the signs of child sexual abuse, how to prevent it and how to react if they’re suspicious of it.
For $450, individuals could be trained more intensely and certified as a “steward of children.” The program is research based, putting participants through a rigorous seminar that uses both survivors who lived through child sexual abuse as well as experts who work with children and families to address sexual abuse.
Stewards of children are trained by Darkness to Light to learn the signs of an abused child and how to prevent it on a community-wide level. They could also train people to spot abuse individually.
“They learn how to spot it but also how to teach people other things. One person can affect the lives of so many,” Kassie Smithey said.
After creating the event in early April, more and more people pledged their support. Kassie and Adam Smithey though that if this many people were interested in funding this one steward, maybe a fund could be established to ensure training was provided long-term.
The new goal became to raise $20,000.
“In a matter of three days, it went from $500 to $20,000. It escalated quickly,” Adam Smithey said.
The interest from that fund would provide about $800 annually, enough to fund one facilitator every year as well as provide training for 50 people or an entire school administration and staff through Darkness to Light.
“We could get one or two facilitators trained then focus on the schools, and once the schools are trained, go to the entire community,” Kassie Smithey said.
With Kassie Smithey’s connection to Owen County, she has worked with the Owen County Community Foundation to manage the fund. They are still waiting for approval from the foundation.
In the meantime, they have been investigating what it would take to connect with a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, or if all else fails, forming a foundation themselves.
“We can use the money we raised to pay for trainings for the community,” Kassie Smithey said. “Ultimately, people are going to get trained. It may not be the grand scheme I had envisioned originally and hoped for, but it will still do some good,” Kassie Smithey said.
While Owen County, and its devastation following Shaylyn’s murder, is the initial inspiration for the fund, the Smitheys want to carry it in on locally.
They hope that their work will motivate other established community groups in Johnson County and elsewhere to look into training stewards of children as well.
“If we can help change one person’s future, it’s worth it,” Adam Smithey said. “As long as we get someone somewhere to help, it’ll be worthwhile.”
Stewards of Children Grant Fund
What: An effort to train people to spot the signs of sexual child abuse, how to approach the problem if they suspect something and how to interact with victims.
Who: The effort is being spearheaded by Adam and Kassie Smithey, Morgan County residents who have partnered with child abuse prevention agency Darkness to Light.
How to help: Donations are being accepted through a YouCaring page, youcaring.com/the-community-of-owen-county-549828.
More information about stewards of children: d2l.org