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Boy's death led to better care for children
Memorial garden to be dedicated to Austin Chance Sparks later this month
Volunteers from the Hall County District Attorney’s office volunteer fill a garden with plants at Little House on Thursday morning along Washington Street. When completed the new garden will be dedicated to the memory of Austin Sparks, a victim of child abuse who’s case led to the creation of the Little House, where CASA resides today.

National Crime Victims’ Rights Week: April 19-25

Austin Sparks Memorial Garden dedication
When: 11:30 a.m. April 20
Where: The Little House, 603 Washington St., Gainesville

Victims’ Rights Butterfly Release
When: 11 a.m. April 24
Where: Kenyon Plaza next to the Hall County Courthouse, 225 Green St., Gainesville

For more information: Hall County Solicitor’s Office, 770-531-7012.

A small pulse kept beating in the 19-month-old child covered in bruises.

Austin Chance Sparks died on his way to the hospital on Jan. 16, 1996, but his case still haunts child welfare workers to this day at the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children, where a memorial garden will be dedicated later this month for Sparks.

“Austin’s case is one of those cases that I think sort of haunts us all as professionals,” the center’s executive director, Heather Hayes, said. “It’s one of those that we look back and go, ‘This is what we should have done. This is what should have been in place. These things should have happened, and maybe he’d still be here.’”

Jason Lamar Smith, Sparks’ then 17-year-old babysitter, confessed that he “held him down by the neck and hit him with his fist as hard as he could,” said then Hall County Sheriff Bob Vass in 1996 to The Times.

“Of all the crimes that people become aware of in the news, they are most disgusted and appalled with people who would harm or kill a child,” said Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh. “It evokes a legitimate response of outrage.”

In almost every year since 1996, a child has died from abuse in Hall County, Hayes said.

“It was one of those types of cases that several years ago you heard all too often where we knew about it and he kind of got lost in the shuffle,” Hayes said.

The case led to demonstrations and outcry from the public, leading to funding for the $160,000 children’s center on Washington Street. The Little House hosts both the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children as well as the Court-Appointed Special Advocates in child welfare legal cases.

Darragh worked on the case in the capacity of chief trial assistant district attorney under Lydia Sartain.

The investigator, Gerald Couch, would too rise in the ranks after this case. Couch was not available to speak this week.

“To go through that process as a professional in the field, it sticks with you,” Hayes said. “It stays in your head and you think over all the details. What if I had done this or done that? And I think we carry those things around with us in all the cases that don’t work out.”

On April 20, the center will hold its dedication of the Austin Sparks Memorial Garden built in front of the house as part of National Crime Victims Rights Week.

“I think it’s most appropriate to remember Austin Sparks as an active, healthy baby until he was abused by those closest to him,” Darragh said. “We want to have positive memories (rather) than the negative fact that he was violently killed, so we can give hope to children everywhere that the adults that are not in their world of abuse do care about them and want to make things better for their lives.”

Sparks’ case, Hayes said, is a symbol for the change made since his death.

“I sat in a room where maybe social services and law enforcement and prosecutors didn’t necessarily have conversations with each other directly,” she said of her work in the 1990s. “It was back in the day when letters were sent. You have your job, and I have my job and we don’t share that information and connect.”

The sharing of evidence becomes crucial to screen out cases of false information as well as stepping in before it’s too late.

“The child wins ultimately when that happens because everybody’s getting what they need to do their job, but things happen very timely, much more efficiently and much more effectively,” Hayes said.

Smith was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole in November 1996. The sentence was changed, however, after the 2013 Georgia Supreme Court case of Moore v. State.

“In Moore, the Supreme Court of Georgia invalidated all life without parole sentences entered between 1993 and 2005 against Georgia defendants who were under the age of (18) at the time the offense was committed,” according to an Aug. 21 order signed by Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin.

As a result, Smith’s sentence was changed to allow the possibility of parole.

The statewide-mandated child fatality review is run through the district attorney’s office under Assistant District Attorney Kelley Robertson. It seeks “to try to learn about child deaths and try to develop ways in which they can be prevented,” Darragh said.

In the time since Sparks’ death, the involvement of faith institutions and schools, Darragh said, has increased tremendously in looking for signs of abuse.

“I think people are more responsive to those efforts than they used to be,” he said.

Hosting the children’s center and CASA in the same building provides for vital sharing of resources for the two nonprofits as well as a way to prevent a second traumatizing experience for child victims.

“Instead of having to go to jail or the (Division of Family and Children Services) office or to these adult-like places that might be scary, they come to the children’s center,” Hayes said. “They’re already experiencing less trauma by interacting with the professionals there to help them.”

In some instances, it also gives the workers at The Little House an extra push to keep going.

“I like to know as an examiner that may have examined a child -- it’s nice for me to be able hear that that child a few years later is doing great and is in this home or in this school and is doing well,” Hayes said. “That helps just sort of reward me in knowing that we all had a little piece in the puzzle of making this child actually have a happier, safer, more nurturing life.”