Nineteen years ago, Investigator Gerald Couch began his work on a case involving a 19-month-old beaten and killed by his babysitter.
“It was a child abuse case so horrific that it shocked the conscience,” Couch said.
Now Hall County Sheriff Couch and other Gainesville-area child advocates gathered Monday at the memorial garden commemorating the death of Austin Chance Sparks and others who died as a result of child abuse.
“I can thankfully say that great progress has been made since those tragic events 19 years ago,” Couch said. “Local agencies have worked hand in hand to protect children and make sure child abuse does not hide in the shadows.”
Jason Lamar Smith, Sparks’ then 17-year-old babysitter, confessed to beating Sparks, who died on Jan. 16, 1996. He received a life prison sentence without parole that was modified last year to give the chance of parole.
The outrage swirling around Sparks’ case is largely responsible for The Little House on Washington Street, which houses the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children and the Court-Appointed Special Advocates.
“In 10 months, from the time of the occurrence of the case to the opening of the doors, this community said, ‘We need to do a better job. We need to understand what’s happening with children,’” said Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard.
The garden holds a statue of Sparks, surrounded by pictures of other child abuse victims from Hall County.
“Today we have dedicated a garden to the memory of Austin Sparks, a child whose life was so brutally taken by one to whom Austin’s care was entrusted,” said Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh.
Darragh served as chief trial assistant district attorney under Lydia Sartain at the time. Sartain said she is proud of the legacy of the case.
“We stand today in solidarity with those children who are too young, too weak, too trusting to fend for themselves from the hands of those who would mistreat them physically and sexually and emotionally,” Darragh said.
Sartain said she was criticized for not seeking the death penalty for Smith, believing that a life without parole was a better option.
“I personally got more threats from this case than any other I prosecuted,” Sartain wrote in an email.