Out Of Tragedy Comes Hope
A sixteen-year-old girl’s gruesome death is now spreading hope across Boone County. The Child Advocacy Center in Boone County, Indiana was renamed Sylvia’s Child Advocacy Center on Nov. 2nd in memory of Sylvia Likens.
On Oct. 26,1965 Sylvia Marie Likens died after being tortured and abused by her caretaker, Gertrude Nadine Baniszewki, Baniszewki’s seven children and six neighborhood children. Sylvia Likens and her younger sister Jenny Likens were staying with the Baniszewki family because their parents, Betty and Lester Likens, were carnival workers. The dark, terrible and painful things that were done to Likens made this case the most gruesome case in Indiana. Together, Baniszewki and the children used Likens as their own astray, punching bag and carving block. When Likens’s body was found it had signs of starvation, bruises all in different stages, and “I am a prostitute and proud” carved on her stomach.
According to the Sylvia’s Child Advocacy Center’s website, the center is, “a nonprofit created in 2010 to serve Boone and Montgomery counties. The SCAC was established by a group of impassioned individuals to provide the coordination of necessary services in a child-focused and child-friendly home-like setting for our most vulnerable victimized citizens . . . our children.” The two biggest programs the center offers are teaching adults how to prevent child sexual abuse and a body safety program for elementary school children. The center is working on setting up more programs that they believe are helpful and needed.
Kassie Frazier, the executive director of Sylvia’s Child Advocacy Center, said the Board of Directors decided to name the center in honor of Likens because, “Her case was one of the worse cases in Indiana and she was originally from Lebanon.” Frazier went on to say that since the center has been in Sylvia’s name it has already impacted the Boone County community. Frazier said, “They feel more connected to our center and they have a better understanding of what we do here.”
Diana Bedwell Likens, Sylvia’s only still living sibling, attended the renaming of the Child Advocacy Center ceremony, but she does not speak out to the public about her sister. Because of this Emily Longnecker, a reporter for WTHR who covered the story could not give out contact information for Diana Bedwell Likens. However, Longnecker could give contact information for Wanda Likens, who is married to Sylvia’s second cousin.
Wanda Likens said that it is important for people to know that, “Her sister is still alive and she is having a hard time still today. She was told if she came on Gertrude’s property she would be arrested. So many lies are being told that she did not help, but she was told to stay away.” Wanda also said that she remembers Sylvia as, “A child that needed extra care and people did not understand she just wanted to be treated as a regular child.”
Many people believe that the case of Sylvia Likens is just as important today as it was in 1965. There are Facebook pages and websites in her memory, many different books about her and a memorial dedicated to her in Willard Park. The 2007 movie, An American Crime, is how Sienna French first heard the tragic story of Sylvia Likens. Sienna French is a student at Teesside University in Middlesbrough, England. French said that she believes Likens’s story is still important today because, “she, in her death, is sort of the poster girl for child abuse, which still effects so many today, me included.” French went on to say that, “I hope that many others can be touched by her struggle and maybe help those people who are abused in their own lives, rather than turn a blind eye as it was in her case.”
Kassie Frazier believes Likens is still relevant because, “She is the reason Indiana has mandated reporter laws for everyone not just professionals. We need to understand if we see something we are legally obligated to say something.” However, there is one man who sees things differently than most people. Natty Bumppo is currently a practicing attorney in Kentucky. Bumppo’s original name was John Dean. John Dean was a reporter for Indy Star. Bumppo was the reporter who wrote the news stories on the trial of Baniszewki and the children. Bumppo said he does not believe Likens’s story is important today and he no longer thinks about it. Bumppo also said, “I am surprised it still holds such public interest.” Bumppo claims he does not understand why there is still so much public interest in the story, yet he is the author of The Indiana Torture Slaying: Sylvia Likens’s Ordeal and Death, which he later was sued for. According to Bumppo he was sued because, “I wrote that Gertrude Baniszewki’s attorney, William C. Erbecker, was a shotgun tactician who had been accused of operating just a shade above the law himself. He sued the publisher and me for libel.”
In 2009, the Baniszewki house on 3852 E New York Street, where Likens died, was torn down. The house might be gone, but the community remembers the terrible things that were done there fifty-one years ago.
The lawyers, children and families involved in the Sylvia Likens story are almost all dead now, but child abuse still happens in Indiana at an alarming rate. According to Jeanette Keating, a state program director for the Department Of Child Services, in Sept. of 2016 alone there were 3023 substantiated cases of abuse and neglect in Indiana. According to a statewide report provided by Keating in Marion County there were 640 substantiated case and 3049 unsubstantiated. In Boone County there were twenty substantiated case and ninety-five unsubstantiated. The Sylvia’s Child Advocacy Center plans to always be a safe place and always have it’s door open for children and families affected by child abuse.
The death of Sylvia Likens is a dark part of Indiana’s history now, but Sylvia’s Child Advocacy Center is a bright part of Indiana’s future.