LAURINBURG — During his first days of life, Charlie Oetzel was like any other normal, healthy baby. He ate, slept and cried. He needed constant attention.
When Audrey Blades noticed that her son had developed a lazy eye and wouldn’t eat, she rushed him 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’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.”
According to dontshake.org, Shaken Baby Syndrome occurs when an infant or small child hits their head or is violently shaken. Symptoms include irritability, decreased appetite, difficulty breathing, seizures, and an inability for an infant to lift their head or focus their eyes.
Blades hopes her son’s case will inspire others who suspect child abuse to come forward. In 2011, 106 Scotland County children were abused or neglected, according to ncchild.org
“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 jailed under 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.”
Blades has been told that Charlie had been shaken at least twice, 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.
A child with Shaken Baby Syndrome can suffer learning, physical, visual, hearing, behavioral and speech impairments. It can lead to cerebral palsy, a loss of motor activity and muscle control, seizures and death.
“I’m glad he’s home because I had to see him every day (at the hospital),” said Pamela Scott, Charlie’s grandmother. “I get upset sometimes because it never should have happened, but as far as Charlie … I’m glad he’s still here.”
Charlie’s hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates chemicals and hormones, is injured. Scott said she and Blades had to keep Charlie bundled in hats and blankets to keep him warm.
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. 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 investigated about a half dozen child abuse cases in the past six months, according to Police Chief Darwin Williams. Though calls for police assistance usually come from the county Department of Social Services, Williams said anyone who suspects mistreatment can 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.”