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Child Advocacy: How a Tragic Death Could Ignite Desperately Needed Systematic Reform

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Re-posted by NITA from Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center

stephanieVillafuerteWritten by Stephanie Villafuerte, Executive Director of Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center

Sailor Serenity Kuhn was born on April 21, 2011.

She died on November 1, 2011, in a Colorado hospital, just a little more than six months of age.

Her death is a tragedy. A young life cut short by an unsparing hand. A life cut short not by accident, or illness or unforeseen circumstance —but by a father she depended upon for her every need.

According to the Cortez Journal, on November 1, 2011, police were called to Sailor’s home. The police were called to the house because Sailor was unresponsive and not breathing.

Sailor was transported to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. X-rays showed signs of severe trauma to her head.

Within days, a medical doctor ruled that Sailor’s death was a homicide, after injuries to the infant did not match her father’s explanation for the abuse.

The Journal reports that Sailor’s father, Dylan Kuhn, initially told police that he had been sleeping with the baby in her in bed, and woke to find her hanging over the side of the bed with a blanket wrapped around her neck. He said he tried to give her CPR but could not revive her.

He later suggested the death may have been caused by the baby falling off a couch on previous occasions.

After the doctor said the injuries did not match a fall from the couch, Dylan Kuhn confessed to “partying” the night before on Halloween, being tired, and slamming his daughter’s head down on a surface, killing her.

Dylan Kuhn was charged with child abuse resulting in death, a charge that carries a mandatory prison sentence. The district attorney allowed Dylan Kuhn to plead guilty to a negligent homicide charge—a charge that obscures the truth in this case because under the law it is considered to be a “non-child abuse” charge. It is also a charge that allowed Dylan Kuhn to be eligible for a probationary sentence.

Dylan Kuhn was sentenced September 25, 2012.

His sentence: probation with 90 days’ jail time. His requirements on probation: to take a parenting class, not drink alcohol, and stay away from children under the age of 10.

Sailor’s case is important because it illustrates the fact that child abuse, despite three decades of public policy and legal interventions, continues to critically impact the lives of our youngest citizens.

This case is also important because it is a poignant reminder that even those involved in the system, such as the judge and the prosecutor in this case, continue to misunderstand and severely undervalue this crime that occurs to the most vulnerable and needy of our citizens.

Within days of Dylan Kuhn’s sentencing, I received calls from local and even a national media outlet asking if Colorado’s child abuse laws were too lenient and in need of revision. My answer was no. As a former criminal prosecutor who specialized in the handling of child abuse cases, I find that Colorado has some of the most stringent laws in the country. However, even the most carefully crafted laws are ineffective if the law is not applied and imposed by the public servants we entrust to do so.

Sailor’s death is a tragedy. It is an even worse tragedy if we ignore how her death was treated. System failures such as those that occurred in this case need to be addressed. Increased education and training are needed to ensure that children like Sailor who suffer a violent death are treated with the respect, care, and dignity that they deserve.

NITA offers a program each year in Hempstead, New York, specifically geared toward Child Advocacy. This program develops the skills necessary to be a competent and skillful attorney for families and the children involved in these proceedings. Check back here for information on our upcoming 2014 program, or find out more here about our public service programs, which include advocacy training in child welfare cases.

We also offer a couple online resources. Available on demand, these two videos are free and focus on Direct Examinations in Child Welfare Court or Making and Meeting Objections in Child Welfare Court Proceedings.

About the author:
Stephanie Villafuerte joined the Children’s Law Center as its executive director in July 2010. Stephanie is a longtime child advocate who has spent 22 years working with children who are victims of physical and sexual abuse and neglect. She has worked tirelessly as a legal advocate in state and federal courts as well as in the public policy arena to ensure the protection of abused children.

Check back to Stephanie’s blog to see her latest thoughts on child abuse issues.

About Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center:
The mission of the Children’s Law Center is to transform the lives of abused, neglected, and at-risk children through compassionate legal advocacy, education, and public policy reform.

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system.

NITA’s Goals are to:

  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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