Story by Erica Hammel
I guess you could say my real life story begins when I was 16 years old. My mom (who was my best friend) died suddenly of brain cancer. It rocked my whole world and it was hard for me to imagine feeling happy again. Well when I was 18, I met a man whom I was sure was the man of my dreams. We dated for a few years, he proposed, I said yes and we were married when I was 22. I was so excited to have found my supposed love of my life so early in life. One thing I also knew from a very young age, is that I always wanted to be a mother. My life plan was we would have 3 kids by the time I was 30. I imagined the white picket fence and all. So my husband and I started trying for a baby and were blessed with my son Wyatt who was born perfect on October 12, 2012. My life was playing out just as I imagined it, and shortly after Wyatt was born we were already talking about having baby #2.
When Wyatt was just 4 months old, my husband at the time just stopped coming home at night. Out of nowhere. When I questioned him about it all he would say is “I’m trying to find myself” “Not sure if I was ready to be a Dad”. So I decided to try and be as supportive as I could and just hope and prayed that he would come back home. I had never felt that alone since my mom had died. This isn’t the way life was supposed to work. How was I all of the sudden a single mom? I was raised to be married before I had a child with someone. I did everything the way I was raised to be, and I just didn’t understand why this was happening. But I couldn’t wallow and soak in my self-pity; I had an infant to take care of. And that was my focus. I became suspicious that my husband wasn’t “finding himself” that he instead was having an affair. He denied it and made me feel like absolute garbage for even suggesting it. But I had someone I knew see him out with another woman and snapped some pretty intimate photos of them. As soon as I brought “the evidence” to him, he finally admitted to it. I knew in that moment my marriage was over. I then filed for divorce in May of 2013.
As soon as I filed, things got nasty. My ex was so verbally abusive towards me. Made me truly feel like I wasn’t good enough and blamed him cheating on me being a horrible wife. Then all of the sudden, the son he had left for months, he wanted visitations with. The woman he was having an affair with, Rachel Edwards, I had only met once. She rubbed me the wrong way though. I then had heard a rumor that she didn’t have custody of her own children. It was another red flag to me. But when I would drop off Wyatt with his father, she would be there with her 3 kids. So it didn’t make much sense. Still, I couldn’t ignore the feeling that I had about her. I didn’t want Wyatt around her. I expressed my fears to my attorney and explained that I wanted to prevent Wyatt’s Dad from overnight visits. I was terrified he would leave Wyatt alone with her. So I tried to pull up whatever I could on her. I first called DHS to see if she had custody of her children, but they are not allowed to give out that info. I then searched her name on Google, looked her up on something we have here in Michigan called OTIS (Offender tracking information system), and even searched her on the Sex Offender Registry. I came up empty on each search and I didn’t have her birthdate either. We had our custody hearing, I explained the referee my concerns and feelings, but since I didn’t have proof, she granted my ex overnight visits. The anxiety I experienced after that hearing, crippled me. I couldn’t sleep well at night, eat well, and it was even affecting me at work. I just had to trust though that my son’s father would keep him safe.
In the morning of Friday November 1, 2013 I received a phone call from Wyatt’s father whom he was with for the weekend that Wyatt had been rushed to Children’s Hospital of Michigan because he was “breathing funny”. My ex had said he was at work and he would meet me at the hospital. One of the things that came to my mind was who the heck was Wyatt left alone with?! My ex-husband gave me his word that when he was at work his mother was watching Wyatt, not Rachel Edwards. Frantic and shaking, I called my brother to drive me to hospital because I was in no shape to drive. I called my ex on my way to the hospital and he admitted to me on my way down there, that he left Wyatt alone with Ms. Edwards. My heart dropped into my stomach. I was livid, but my main focus was getting to the hospital to Wyatt. I had NO idea what I was walking in on. I was thinking maybe he had an allergic reaction or he had a cold and they were just taking him down to the hospital for precaution.
When I walked into Children’s Hospital ER, I was stopped immediately by a member of the neurosurgery team. The moment her eyes looked into mine, I knew what she was about to say was going to be bad. She told me Wyatt is awaiting emergency surgery because he has a major brain bleed and fractured skull that they were believed were due to a non-accidental injury. I dropped to me knees and started becoming hysterical. All I kept asking her is “Is my baby going to be ok?” “He’s going to make it right?” and all she could tell me is he was in the best place possible and they were going to do everything they could. The feeling of not knowing whether your child is going to live or die is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
I got to see Wyatt before he went into emergency surgery. I took about 4 steps into the room and stopped in horror. There was my baby boy lying there unconscious. He was stripped down to his diaper, gray looking, his eyed were rolled in the back of his head, and he had a tube and wire coming out of every part of his body. My happy smiley baby boy was laying there looking so lifeless. It is an image that plays over in mind over and over again every single day.
The 4 + hours he was in surgery were the longest hours of my life. But instead of being able to sit with my family to comfort me, I had to be interviewed by CPS agents, doctors, etc. I understand it was just protocol, but it was not what I needed at that time. While I was being interviewed I was also trying to pray at the same time. I could not lose my baby boy. Once Wyatt made it through surgery I was able to go see him the PICU. He looked pretty much the same as I saw him before his surgery except now he had a giant incision on his head from the surgery. He was hooked up to life support and the doctors told me the next 48 hours would be critical. At this point all I could do is sit by Wyatt’s bedside and pray. The doctors advised me that including the brain bleed and fractured skull that Wyatt also had broken ribs, bilateral retinal hemorrhages, and torn gums. They told me his injuries were consistent with shaken baby syndrome. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
Wyatt’s case came into the prosecutor’s office as a homicide; he was not expected to make it. I was then notified by the police that my ex-husband’s girlfriend, Rachel Edwards, did indeed have a criminal history. She was convicted in 2011 of 3rd degree child abuse and again in 2013 of 4th degree child abuse. She received just probation and fines both times. What’s even more sobering is she was sentenced on the second charge just 10 days before she almost killed Wyatt. Had the judge just given her 30 days in county jail, she wouldn’t have been able to get her hands on Wyatt that day. Made me sick to my stomach and I knew in that moment, I had to make a change in this world. My immediate thought was how come people who sexually abuse children have to register, but people that physically abuse children don’t.
Wyatt has endured 4 brain surgeries and 3 eye surgeries since he has been shaken. Not to mention the countless doctor’s appointments, pokes, tests, and outpatient physical, speech, and occupational therapies. He is blind in his left eye permanently, developmentally delayed, slightly cognitively impaired, and suffers from seizures and migraines. But he is alive and happy. He is my miracle boy. And I definitely wasn’t going to let what happen to him, happen to another child. So that is what made me create Wyatt’s Law.
After doing some research back in 2014, I had found out that no state in the country had a PIBLIC child abuser registry/database. It boggled my mind. I knew that if this existed when I was going through my divorce, Wyatt could have been protected. So I started an online petition, once I got 500 signatures, I started writing my local legislators and the rest as they say is history. In October of 2015 the first set of bills of “Wyatt’s Law” where introduced into the Michigan Legislature. I’m so proud to say Michigan was the very FIRST state in the nation to introduce this type of legislation. Wyatt’s Law would create a public registry for those CONVICTED of abusing a child physically. The bills have been introduced multiple times since then and we just recently passed the Michigan House of Representatives unanimously this past December. It was the first time Wyatt’s Law ever passed the House as it has passed the State Senate 3 times. Hoping to get Wyatt’s Law passed the finish line this Spring.
Child abuse is up 30% in the State of Michigan. With Covid, the reporting of child abuse has gone way down because children have been home with their abusers. Schools are one of our #1 reporters. So I expect the numbers of child abuse cases to sky rocket within the next year. Most of the push back on Wyatt’s Law is because of the cost. How do I answer to that? Well, the survivors of child abuse/neglect cost the United States $124 BILLION dollars A YEAR in health care costs, lost worker productivity, special education programs, child welfare services, and criminal justice proceedings. *That is enough money to send 1.7 Million children to college. Staggering isn’t it?! I’m sick of politicians putting a price tag on the safety and well-being of our most innocent and vulnerable members of society, our children. Child abuse occurs in families of all races, cultures, and all socioeconomic levels. It does not discriminate; it happened to my child, it can happen to your child. We must break this cycle of abuse before it breaks our country. It already is.
Being a single mother of a child with special needs is not easy. Wyatt’s father is not allowed to see him and has done nothing to get back into his life. The thought I struggle most with is “What would Wyatt be like today if he wasn’t shaken”. But I try to not think that way. I’m so blessed to have Wyatt here alive. I never take that for granted. Wyatt’s abuser was sentenced to 33 months to 10 years behind bars. Every year we go up to address the parole board. It is not easy to relive everything every year, but she has thankfully been denied 3 times. Unfortunately though in April of 2020, Rachel Ann Edwards was granted parole. She only served 5 years of her 10 year sentence. Its mind blowing to me that she will be off parole this coming April. No restrictions, nobody she has to report too…she’ll literally be a completely free woman. Abusers like Rachel Edwards can give a child a “life sentence” but she doesn’t get one herself. This why it’s imperative that if we can’t keep these perpetrators behind bars, that we know who they are so we can keep our children away from the. Wouldn’t you want to know if your next door neighbor was a convicted child abuser? If you want to follow Wyatt’s story and get updates on Wyatt’s Law, please join his Facebook Group “Wyatt the Warrior”.