We call our beautiful region God’s Country.
In God’s Country, no child should go through hell.
No child should die from abuse.
But somehow, we couldn’t protect Audryna Bartsh from evil.
Just 3 years old, Audryna Bartsh suffered a slow, unimaginable death.
We couldn’t protect her from being emaciated, from the bruises, scratches and scarring that her tiny body was repeatedly forced to endure.
She died at age 3, weighing just 26 pounds — four pounds less than when she was 2. The medical examiner found 22 scrapes and 28 bruises on her head, 70 scars on her neck that betrayed the marks of an adult fingernail, bite marks and cuts, and 17 injuries that likely came from a beating with a coat hanger.
She had a black eye, a bloody lip and bleeding on the brain.
And she died three days after suffering seizures.
And it happened here in God’s Country, with all of us here.
What can we learn? What can we do? How can we prevent such an atrocity from happening again?
How can we, as a community, figure out how to embrace all children with a hug instead of losing even one to starvation and constant, torturous abuse?
“I think she suffered a worse death than many of the homicide cases we’ve seen,” La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke said during last week’s sentencing. “This was preventable for days and weeks. She was literally dying right in front of (her father’s) eyes.”
But no one stopped it.
No one asked questions or raised concerns.
That’s truly shameful.
There’s no excuse.
La Crosse County Health Director Jen Rombalski, who wasn’t involved in the case, looks at such a tragedy through the lens of public health.
“The saying is true that if you see something, say something,” she said. “If there’s a suspicion in your gut, what’s the harm in reporting it? I understand that someone might be afraid of what will happen if they’re wrong, if they’re identified, if they’re infringing on parental rights. But it’s best to trust your gut and not wonder whether you should have.”
She recommends the power of being “a caring adult. If you see a child, you can give a warm smile or say hello. You can let a child know you care in any way you’re comfortable. Being a caring adult does make a difference.”
Some are understandably criticizing the five-year sentence that the father received last week for the unspeakable actions that led to his daughter’s death. And we certainly understand that anger and the questions that rise from the emotion of this case.
But the sentencing is after the fact, after the death of an innocent child who deserved so much more from life.
Instead of reacting with blame and focusing on negative energy, Rombalski urges, “Show compassion. The community can choose its response, and it’s best to choose compassion.”
She stressed that all parents — herself included — need help from time to time. She says our region has a full response system in place, from law enforcement and the court system to 608-784-HELP, the Family and Children’s Center, the Parenting Place and many daycares.
Dylan Bartsh is serving five years in prison for torturing his daughter until her 3-year-old body gave up.
And she says all of us can learn to be more empathetic.
We’re all left with the question of whether this could have been prevented.
“Audryna did nothing but want to live,” Gruenke said.
That’s all any child, any innocent wants — a life without abuse, a healthy shot at growing up and pursuing a life filled with happiness.
This wasn’t a one-time episode.
This was years of constant abuse — a sickening, shocking, shameful series of decisions that ruined a little life.
In a place we call God’s Country, we must focus on protecting others — especially the most vulnerable.
If you see something, say something.
If you suspect something, report it.
No child should endure such hell.
No one should.