LAURINBURG — In his first days of life, Charlie Oetzel was like any other normal, healthy baby. He ate, slept and cried. He needed constant care and attention.
During that short time, Audrey Blades grew to know her young son well. When she noticed that Charlie seemed to have suddenly developed a lazy eye and that he was uninterested in eating, the child was rushed to a doctor — and then, for a brain scan.
“The doctor came in and told me had been shaken,” Blades said.
Now, at 4 months old, Charlie requires a ventilator. He is blind and his brain has trouble regulating his body’s temperature. It is unclear how normal a life Charlie will lead.
“It’s life-changing,” Blades said. “Even if he makes a miraculous improvement my son won’t be the same. His sister won’t be able to play with him the way I played with my brother. We don’t know what he’s going to be capable of — it’s playing the waiting game.”
Though his road to recovery is long, Charlie made great strides during his two-month hospitalization, surprising doctors who thought he would not survive.
According to ncchild.org, in 2011, 106 Scotland County children were found to be victims of abuse or neglect. The recurrence of maltreatment of children was 4.2 percent. Blades hopes her son’s case will inspire others who suspect abuse to come forward before it’s too late.
“You could save a baby’s life — like Charlie’s — just by speaking up,” Blades said.
Laurinburg Police have charged Charlie’s father with felonious child abuse.
Andrew Michael Oetzel, 24, was arrested on Feb. 6 and given a $100,000 bond.
“Be very aware,” Blades said. “Very aware. … If you see anything, hear anything — you don’t have to be directly involved, but don’t just sit back.”
According to dontshake.org, Shaken Baby Syndrome occurs when an infant or small child hits their head or is violently shaken. Common symptoms include irritability, decreased appetite, difficulty breathing, seizures, and an inability for an infant to lift their head or focus their eyes.
Blades has been told that Charlie had been shaken on two separate occasions, but doesn’t know exactly when. She now wishes she had paid more attention to “the little things,” like hearing Oetzel “raise his voice” at Charlie or talk to him “like he was an adult.”
“He wasn’t soft-spoken with the baby or soothing,” Blades said.
Shaken Baby Syndrome can cause a child to grow up having learning, physical, visual, hearing, behavioral and speech disabilities or impairments. Victims can suffer from Cerebral Palsy, a loss of motor activity and muscle control, seizures and death.
Charlie’s Hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates important chemicals and hormones, is damaged.
“We had to keep his room warm,” said Pamela Scott, Charlie’s grandmother, “keep him under blankets, keep hats on him, keep him in the heat — (doctors) said he would never wake up.”
However, Charlie surprised doctors at CNC Levine Children’s Hospital three weeks after he’d been there.
“He’s got a long road but at the beginning he was totally asleep,” Blades said. “They didn’t think he would survive. He couldn’t regulate his temperature, but he’s doing very good at regulating his temperature without any help with a blanket. He’s doing a lot better than they thought.”
All Blades asked is for people to pray for Charlie.
“I’m glad he’s home because I had to see him every day (at the hospital),” said Scott. “I get upset sometimes because it never should have happened but as far as Charlie … I’m glad he’s still here.”
Charlie’s is one of two recent cases of child abuse in Scotland County. On April 6, a 22-month-old girl suffered third-degree burns on her feet, when, according to Laurinburg police, the child’s godmother placed her in a bathtub, turned on the hot water and left the room.
The child was taken to Scotland Memorial Hospital and later transferred to the UNC Burn Center in Chapel Hill for further treatment. Linda McQueen, 47, was charged with child abuse a few days later, according to Cliff Sessoms, Laurinburg’s assistant police chief, and held in the Scotland County jail under a $50,000 secured bond.
The Laurinburg Police Department has received about six child abuse cases in the past six months, according to Police Chief Darwin Williams. Though calls for police assistance usually come from the county’s department of social services, Williams said anyone who suspects mistreatment can also make an anonymous call to his office.
“Any abuse to a child is bad,” he said. “It doesn’t matter the severity. No child deserves abuse.”
The Scotland County Sheriff’s Office has dealt with four cases of child abuse and two cases of child neglect so far this year, with three arrests made, according to Sheriff Shep Jones. Four child abuse cases were reported in both 2013 and 2012, and four arrests were made each year.
“Usually if you suspect something’s going on, it’s probably going on,” said Jones. “There’s a reason why you’re thinking like that.”
Both Jones and Williams stressed that children, when old enough, should notify police themselves if they are being abused.
“We want the kids to know that we’re their friends,” said Jones. “We want them to feel comfortable if they are being abused — that they would notify us and we can investigate and see exactly what’s going on.”
To foster that relationship, county law enforcement, county social services and various county and state agencies will together be participating in a Family Fun Day on the DSS grounds, held each year in April, Child Abuse Prevention Month.
The event is set for April 26 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will feature bounce houses and other activities. Children will be asked during an art contest to draw whatever makes them happy, and what happiness means to them.
The day serves as “a child abuse prevention strategy,” said Sheretha Maniece-Barrios, social services intern, by getting families together with agencies who can fulfill needs.
All children, she said, deserve to live in safe and healthy communities that foster their well being.
Anyone who suspects that a child is being abused can contact the Laurinburg Police Department at 910-276-3211 or the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office at 910-276-3385.
Rachel McAuley can be reached at 910-276-2311, ext. 15. Follow her on Twitter @rachelmcauley1.