For the rest of his life, Wyatt Rewoldt will carry the scars of trauma inflicted upon him two and a half years ago by his father’s girlfriend.
His mother, Erica Hammel, is grateful he’s alive. She wasn’t sure she’d get to see her son laugh, walk or babble again after the horrible November day in 2013 that left Wyatt on the edge of death.
He was so severely shaken by his father’s girlfriend,Rachel Ann Edwards, that he was unconscious and unresponsive when an ambulance sped the boy toChildren’s Hospital of Michigan. Wyatt was in a medically-induced coma and on life support as doctors treated him for a massive brain hemorrhage, a fractured skull, bilateral retinal hemorrhaging, and broken ribs.
“He’s my miracle boy,” said Hammel, who lives in St. Clair Shores. “The prosecutor told me his case came in as a homicide at first because they didn’t think he was going to make it.
“They were able to determine that it was caused by shaken-baby syndrome.”
It wasn’t until after Wyatt was abused that Hammel learned he wasn’t Edwards’ first victim.
Edwards had been convicted twice on child-abuse charges in the years before she shook Wyatt. Edwards spanked the son of another boyfriend hard enough to leave marks, which led to a third-degree felony child-abuse conviction in 2011. She later drugged the same boy, and was convicted of fourth-degree child abuse, a misdemeanor, in 2013. In both cases, she was sentenced to probation in district court.
Because there is no simple method for the public to check court records in child-abuse cases, or a way to find them online if the person didn't serve time in prison, Hammel couldn't know the danger Edwards posed to her son.
Now, Hammel is on a mission to ensure that no child suffers abuse because his parents don’t know about an abuser’s violent past. She's pushing for Wyatt’s Law, a package of three bills in the state House of Representatives that would create a searchable online child-abuse registry in Michigan so anyone who has been convicted of hurting a child would be visible. It would be the nation's first such registry.
"As soon as my mind cleared, and I knew that Wyatt was going to survive, that’s immediately what I thought about. How is it that there is a registry for pedophiles, but you can physically abuse a child and you can hide behind your crime?" Hammel said. "Had something like Wyatt’s Law been in place back then, I am sure I would have been able to prevent this from happening to him because I would have been able to go to the judge and say, 'This woman has these crimes. I don’t want her around my son.' "
Derek Miller, who was the Macomb County prosecutor in Edwards’ 2013 conviction and now is the Macomb County treasurer, said with her past convictions, Edwards never should have been able to lay her hands on Wyatt.
"What you see a lot is just repetitive behavior with people in situations of abuse," Miller said. "There really is no avenue for parents who want to take precautionary steps to ensure their child’s safety. Here was somebody in this particular case who had committed child abuse twice — one with actual physical abuse and the other where she had given the child potentially deadly prescription medication. She had no remorse. She fell through the cracks of the sentencing guidelines. The judge sentenced her to probation a second time. Then, she found a new boyfriend with another child."
Miller introduced Wyatt's Law in October, while he was still serving in the state House of Representatives. The registry would be run by the Michigan State Police, accessible to the public, and searchable by name, address, date of birth, job or school. It would include a picture and a summary of the convictions.
Anyone convicted of misdemeanor child abuse would be on the registry for five years. Anyone with a felony conviction would be registered for 10 years. Those who are convicted must register, keep their information updated and pay a $50 annual registration fee or face a four-year felony, he said.
"Because the software with the State Police already exists, we anticipate it will not be an overly burdensome cost on the state. When it comes to public safety, you have to weigh cost vs. benefit of possibly saving a child’s life," Miller said. "We talk about how children in Flint will have to live with the repercussions of having lead in their systems for the rest of their lives. But what about children who have to live with physical trauma the rest of their lives? How will that impact them in a detrimental way moving forward for the rest of their lives? In my mind, the benefit of saving a child’s life far outweighs the cost of a registry to the state, especially when the accused is going to bear most of the cost of registering."
Given that there are so many nontraditional families these days, and lots of parents are in the dating pool, many children spend time with and meet girlfriends and boyfriends of parents. It's hard to know who might have been abusive in the past, as Edwards was.
Child abuse cases in Michigan are at a 25-year high. A Free Press analysis of child-abuse statistics reported earlier this month that 34,777 children were abused or neglected in the state in the 12 months following October 2014. In that year, 15.6 out of every 1,000 Michigan children was abused or neglected, the highest rate since 1990.
"Breakups happen," Hammel said. "I feel like we have a right to know if somebody has been convicted of a crime that involves children. We have a registry for sexual abuse; why don't we have it for physical abuse?"
The registry could provide peace of mind not only to parents who are dating, but also to anyone who is searching for a babysitter, whose kids want to have a sleepover at a friend's house or a play date with a new pal.
In Wyatt's case, his parents were divorced and had shared custody. The day Wyatt was abused, his dad had left him in the care of his girlfriend, Edwards, while he was at work.
Though Hammel tried to do a background check on Edwards when she learned that Wyatt would be spending time with her, she couldn’t find any reference to Edwards’ past convictions.
“It struck me that something wasn’t right" about her, said Hammel, 27. “I searched her on the Internet. I searched her on OTIS, which is that Offender Tracking Information System. I checked her on the sex-offender registry, and I found nothing. So I'm sitting before a referee in custody court, and I said, 'These are just my instincts about his girlfriend.' ... And the referee basically laughed in my face. He said, 'Do you know how many times I hear this?' We got joint custody. ... At that point, I just left it in his dad's hands that he was going to protect Wyatt."
That trust was soon shattered.
In February 2015, Edwards pleaded no contest to second-degree child abuse in Macomb County Circuit Court. She was sentenced to 33 months to 10 years in prison in Wyatt's case.
"I truly, in my heart of hearts, feel that she would do it again," Hammel said. "She'll be up for parole in March. It scares me to death that she could get out. Her sentence was 33 months to 10 years. It's not enough. I hope and pray that when I go before the parole board, I can convince them not to release her.
"The laws don't work on our children's side. These people get out and they roam the streets again. Statistics show that people who abuse children go on to abuse again. If we can't keep these people locked behind bars, then the public needs to know about them so we can protect our children."
Hammel said she's heard from some critics of the sex-offender registry who say it penalizes people for minor crimes, that people who've served their time and have been rehabilitated are forever tormented by being on a public registry.
But that's where Wyatt's Law would be different. It only would list people who've been convicted in court on a child-abuse charge. And people wouldn't be listed forever. The time on the registry is limited to five or 10 years, depending on the severity of the crime.
"We have to stop protecting those who abuse children and have a no-excuse and no-tolerance policy," Hammel said. "If someone is truly rehabilitated from their crimes and they keep a straight-and-narrow path, they can get off this registry.
"The only people who are going to be on there are people who have hurt children and have been convicted in a court of law. You don't want to be on this list? Don't hurt a child. Simple as that."
Now 3½ years old, Wyatt has had four brain surgeries and two eye surgeries. He is permanently blind in one eye. He has difficulty eating solid food. He can say only a few individual words.
He spends several hours every weekday in a special education classroom and undergoes speech, physical and occupational therapy.
"The communication is the hardest thing," Hammel said. "Sometimes he’ll be so bothered by something, and I’m trying so hard to figure out what it is.
“My heart breaks because I know he's frustrated because he can’t tell me what he’s feeling. … Sometimes he grabs his head, and we don’t know if it’s headaches.
"My son was 1 when this happened. He was defenseless. He couldn't fight back. ... We fight so hard in this country for civil rights and gay rights, which I think is wonderful. But what about the rights of children? Why aren't we fighting for them? ... They are the most innocent and vulnerable members of society. They should be the No. 1 priority."
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: 313-222-5997 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.
How to be heard
Erica Hammel was in Lansing last week, talking to lawmakers and trying to get traction for Wyatt's Law. The bundle of legislation — House Bills 4973, 4974 and 4975 — still awaits a hearing in the House Judiciary Comittee. It has no companion bill in the Senate. Without a swell of support, it might die before it gets serious consideration.
If you support Wyatt's Law, call your lawmakers in the state Legislature and tell them what you think. You also can write to or call the chairman of the state House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, and tell him that you support Wyatt's Law. Call Rep. Kesto at 517-373-1799 or send an e-mail to KlintKesto@house.mi.gov
You can also sign an online petition in support of the law on its Change.org page in support of the legislation. To do so, go to http://chn.ge/1U6YpWx.
How to get help
If you suspect the neglect or abuse of a child or adult, call 855-444-3911 toll-free at any time of the day or night. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services offers a list of common signs to watch for that could indicate abuse online here: http://1.usa.gov/23KOs7d.
Detroit Free Press