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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.

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.

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.


(17) comments


I can honestly say, as a white person in this community, I feel like if this a--holewas any other race, he would have been given the max of 15 years. The judicial system in LaCrosse has given me no reason to feel otherwise. Sad.


This beautiful young child was abused all the days of her life. Not once in her tragically short life did she know true love and compassion. At least not until the first responders and paramedics showed up on her doorstep. I hope for those brief few hours she knew that her life mattered, and we all loved her. I hope she found a peace in death, that she was never given herw. I wasn't on this call, but from what I heard and experienced from this who were, I hope this father is abused and hurt over and over and over until he begs for death. And then I hope he is abused even more.


There are days when I am ashamed to be part of the same human race with those people who commit these type of atrocities. I much prefer to be with animals in those times.


Maybe I'll move to a zoo and cut off all connections to the human race.


Not a bad idea. Every time I watch a nature documentary I am jealous of the animals.


Now that I've calmed down (a little) I'd like to say that I know a DA can only file charges that he's confident will be accepted by the jury. If the DA shoots too high, like charging a cigarette shop lifter with grand theft auto, the defendant will be found innocent of that crime and be released. I get that. But a man committing violent and dangerous acts for 2 or 3 years on his daughter that he has to know will cause suffering and death? I would have gone for 2nd degree murder.


I have to go with Buggs on his point. 5 years in prison? 5 years? That is an absolute travesty. At best, this animal is guilty of 2nd degree murder. I'm not an attorney, but perhaps a case could even be made for premeditated first degree murder. I'm not sure if I'm going to shed tears or vomit over what this incomprehensible "father" did to such a young life. If this judge is an elected judge, he or she needs to be voted out of office as soon as possible. How could anyone with half a heart or half a brain sit and listen to the details of this case and then hand out a 5 year sentence? And given the degree and length of the abuse, why didn't the DA go for a 2nd degree murder charge? I've said it before and it will never happen, but the punishment for something like this should be to have the man castrated, then sentenced to 3 years of exactly the treatment he gave his daughter. Then, if he lives through that, a prison sentence that will take him well into his senior years. Call it the "We're going to do unto you as you have done to others" law. Some back ally dog would be a better parent than this hollow shell of a human being. What he did is deplorable to the greatest degree, and what the judge gave for a sentence is beyond understanding. And for anybody, including the mother, who knew or suspected this was going on and didn't inform anybody, part of this little girl's death sits on your shoulders. How on earth could anybody with half an ounce of compassion just ignore this?

sassafrass definitely are not an attorney or know the judicial system. This is by no means the judges fault. a judge can't make up their own sentences. The judge gave this guy the MAX of what he could give him given the charges. I think you need to brush up on your laws and the judicial system because there was literally NOTHING this judge could do.


Ditto. These monday morning judges need to brush up on the law.


Whoever contributed to this pathetic excuse of a punishment is responsible. Judges, DA's, whatever. The system. Nobody should ever torture a child to death and receive 5 years.


@Sassafrass I think someone needs to brush up on the laws a s the judicial system aling with their reading skills and it isn't grandpa. If you actually read all of the facts, you would know tgat he faced 15 years. The charges that he "pleaded" down to carried a maximum sentence of 15 years. He received 1/3 of the maximum. 2/3 is you coun the 5 years supervised release. Not only that but he is also eligible for the Early Release Program. He abused, starved and torchured a baby and he is sitting less time than some people sit for burglarizing and outhouse!!! This is OUR justice system and WE need to do something about it. The maximum should have been given. 15 years in!!!!


Thanks, laxlax, for clarifying that point. Those numbers you mention were exactly what I was thinking about when I made that comment.


@sassafrass: Please read laxlax's reply to you comment as post below. The judge DID have other options.

Buggs Raplin

This editorial is rather lame. The public anger here is over a judicial system that failed to dispense justice to the perpetrators, and the Tribune downplayed that aspect.


Because only Chippy knows what should be printed in the paper and what opinions should be spread through the media.


Who truly believes that this same kind of tragedy, to a lesser or even as great a degree, cannot be going on right now somewhere else in our community? This innocent child suffered the way too many little ones suffer in our society--betrayed by those she depended upon and trusted to love and care for her. Were there any among us who saw this and suspected or wondered about it, but in the end didn't act because it was not our business or we didn't want to get people in trouble? A baby was slowly tortured and killed right here in "God's Country" and this should never have happened and should never happen again.


@ elocs: "A baby was slowly tortured and killed right here in "God's Country" and this should never have happened and should never happen again." Bulls eye. I don't know how that could have been said any better.

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