Aunt turns anger over infant's death into activism

Aunt turns anger over infant's death into activism

Illinois public school students could get a classroom lesson on the dangers of shaking a baby.

The Illinois House recently approved a resolution urging the state board of education to include Shaken Baby Syndrome awareness and prevention education programs in curricula for junior high and high school students.

"I just hope it can save somebody's life," said Joni Markel of Sidell.

Markel, a court reporter at the Champaign County Courthouse, pushed for education and stiffer penalties in criminal cases involving shaken babies following the 2004 death of her great-niece, Macey Duewar. The 10-month-old St. Joseph girl died on Feb. 10, 2004, while in the care of her mother's then-boyfriend, Andrew R. Drollinger of Oakwood, as a result of shaking and blunt-force trauma to the head.

Drollinger, now 23, was charged with four counts of first-degree murder. However, during an October 2005 bench trial, Vermilion County Circuit Judge Tom Fahey, who is now retired, convicted him of the lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter.

Two months later, Fahey sentenced Drollinger to eight years and four months in prison. Drollinger, who was credited for serving 665 days in jail while awaiting trial and earned day-for-day credit for good behavior in prison, is set to be released Aug. 17.

"It just infuriates me," said Markel, a soft-spoken woman. "Whether he did it intentionally or unintentionally, he killed a baby."

Markel and her husband, Bill, frequently baby-sat Macey for Jessica Shields, now Gawthorp, Macey's mom and Markel's niece. Markel was racked with guilt when the infant died suddenly.

Several times, Markel had sensed that something was wrong with Macey. She had even seen signs. Once, when Macey was 7 or 8 months old, she had a black eye. Drollinger blamed it on his dog, claiming it stepped on the girl while it was trying to catch a ball.

The last time Markel baby-sat, she reached down to pick up Macey. Drollinger "immediately said 'Don't freak out, but she fell and hit her eye on the heating vent,'" Markel recalled, adding that she didn't believe him.

In counseling, Markel realized she had to channel her feelings into something positive, so she planted a flower garden in Macey's memory in her backyard. Needing to do more, she wrote to state Reps. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, and Bill Black, R-Danville, asking them to consider proposing legislation to stiffen the sanctions in cases like Macey's.

Rose, whom Markel met when he was a Champaign County assistant state's attorney, responded almost immediately. After meeting with her, he proposed a bill (HB 1115) that would double the discretionary maximum term for involuntary manslaughter in cases where the victim is under 12.

The bill is on hold while a state commission overhauls the Illinois Criminal Code, Rose said. "Hopefully, this could become part of that," he said. "Most people would say (the current provisions) are not an appropriate outcome. ... Involuntary manslaughter could cover someone who backed out from their garage and ran over someone. That's a lot different than picking up a baby and shaking it."

Markel, who testified before House members in Springfield earlier this year, also realized there needed to be an educational component to try to prevent situations from getting that far.

"Kids are having kids now," she said. But "they don't have any guidance. Adults don't even have an instructional manual."

Rose's resolution to address that (HR 228) was approved unanimously by 102 members late last week, during the second week of the overtime session. While not mandatory, it urges the state board to use material from national groups "to educate students about the medical aspects of shaking injuries, how to cope with the stress of caring for an infant, and how to prevent" it.

The state board would most likely make materials available for teachers on its Web site and provide links to other educational sites, spokeswoman Andrea Preston said. "We certainly would like to see Shaken Baby Syndrome eliminated or to not occur."

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