Learn the right lessons from Rhonda Oakley’s death

Published 7:33 pm Tuesday, April 2, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

There are important, sobering lessons to be learned from the tragic death of Rhonda Oakley in 2016 and the prosecution of her then-15-year-old step-daughter as an adult for causing her death. Unfortunately, many are not learning the lessons.

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Many people have reacted at every step of the investigation with burning hatred for Jenna Oakley, who was sentenced last week to 15 years in prison. They have demanded as harsh a treatment as possible, called her many things we will not repeat here, and the worst among them have even advocated for extrajudicial execution.

Anger and a desire for vengeance are normal, reflexive human reactions when confronted with an unthinkable crime. But they are not useful reactions, especially years after an event. Those still frothing at the mouth for retribution are doing more harm than good.

They are right that what happened is appalling, that something should be done. But by focusing so fervently on punishment for Jenna Oakley, they are missing the bigger picture and failing to react in a way that will have any long-term positive effect.

How should we react?

First, with sadness and empathy for the family that lost Rhonda Oakley.

Second, with a desire for healing. The family will never get Rhonda back, but it is possible for them to process their loss and overcome the pain that could otherwise hobble them for the rest of their lives.

Third, with thoughtfulness and an eye to how such tragedies might be avoided in the future. We know a lot about how abuse and neglect affect very young children. It can create innumerable behavioral, social and mental health problems.

We ought to look at Jenna Oakley’s troubled early childhood and see a potential connection — a correlation that should inspire us to want to prevent abuse and neglect. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, making now an easy time to learn about and lend our support to such positive efforts:

• The Heart of Danville and CASA of the Bluegrass are organizing a week-long awareness campaign at the end of April called Paint Our Town Blue, during which businesses and homes are encouraged to put out big blue bows and decorate doors and windows with blue items to raise awareness about child abuse.

• The Families First Family Resource Center is hosting Child Abuse Prevention Family Night on April 25, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Toliver Intermediate School, during which you can learn about the impacts of child abuse, how to identify abuse of a child in your life and what to do if you fear or know a child is being abused.

What happened to Rhonda Oakley is an immense tragedy. But if we let anger cloud our judgment and define our reactions, if we fail to respond in a positive way, the tragedy will only grow worse.