When Brian Replogle saw the headlines in the newspaper last week, it took him back to the day that his life was forever changed: Dec. 7, 2000.
That was the day that Brian’s only nephew — now his adopted son — was given a permanent disability during a gruesome act of abuse. Austin Replogle was the victim of shaken baby syndrome.
Although Austin survived the attack and is thriving as a client at ADEC’s day service program at the Plaza in Elkhart, where he likes to watch videos on his iPad, recent events served as a reminder to Brian that more work needs to be done to prevent child abuse.
The Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department is currently investigating a case of alleged abuse by a babysitter that left a 3-month-old baby with several broken bones and signs of shaken baby syndrome.
Austin’s story is proof that although most people in the community will only talk about that alleged case of abuse for a few weeks or months, the consequences of the incident can last for a lifetime.
Like the rest of the community, Brian was infuriated when he read about the incident. But even more than anger, he feels heartbreak for the family whose life was forever changed by a preventable act.
“No family should have to feel that pain ever,” Brian said. “It’s devastating.”
That’s why Brian works closely with Child and Parent Services of Elkhart County (CAPS) as a volunteer and an advocate. He served two terms on the organization’s Board of Directors and recently organized the “Big Daddy Run” motorcycle ride to raise funds and awareness for CAPS’ child abuse prevention programs.
CAPS, an Elkhart County nonprofit agency that has been working to prevent child abuse and neglect for 40 years, helped Brian and Austin through the first years after Austin’s injury. Austin had supervised visitation with his biological parents and Austin was assigned a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) to help the courts determine if either parent was fit to continue being Austin’s guardian.
Eventually, the courts stripped Austin’s parents of their parental rights, and CAPS services helped Brian and Austin navigate the world of foster parenting and adoption.
“Please learn to control your own emotions before picking up or even caring for a child,” Brian said. “Abuse is preventable and unacceptable.”
But as hard as people like Brian and agencies like CAPS try, sometimes the message does not reach the right people. And as Brian learned more than 15 years ago, sometimes it can result in lifelong disability.
Although many of the people that ADEC serves were born with intellectual or developmental disabilities, the organization also serves many who developed a disability later in life. A disability can happen after a near drowning or after a serious car crash. It can happen after a fall from a ladder or a dive into too-shallow water. It can also happen after a case of abuse, like it did for Austin.
And it can happen to anyone.
That’s why in addition to being an outspoken advocate for child abuse prevention, Brian is also an advocate for people with disabilities.
“People need to understand that they are a part of this community,” he said. “Introduce yourself to them, shake their hand. The smile on their face when you do so will tell it all.”
Brian has learned a lot about disability since taking custody of Austin. He’s learned that although there may be things that Austin cannot do, that does not stop him from trying. And he has learned that although Austin may not be able to clearly verbalize what he’s thinking or feeling, he still forms relationships with those around him.
Brian has also learned that although there are still some in the community that misunderstand disability – and Austin, specifically – there are others who show nothing but compassion, like the hockey clubs at University of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College. Each year, those two teams compete for “Austin’s Cup,” a traveling trophy named after Austin to raise awareness for shaken baby syndrome.
Brian is proud of the man Austin is becoming. Austin recently celebrated his 18th birthday, and it was a bittersweet one for Brian. That particular birthday is a milestone when many young people are graduating from high school, moving off to college to live on their own for the first time and beginning to pursue the career of their dreams.
Make no mistake, Austin still reaches important milestones in his life — they’re just very different.
Although Brian still feels anger about what happened to Austin — sometimes a memory of those dark days in the hospital or a news story about shaken baby syndrome creep up on him — that anger is always overpowered by the love and pride he feels for his son.
“He is so much fun,” Brian said. “He is full of love and happiness. He loves being around people.”