From the steps of Buffalo City Hall, activists and elected officials railed against the twin evils of child abuse and neglect. A few feet away, a 3-year-old North Tonawanda boy sat quietly, fussing a bit and even snoozing for a few minutes, oblivious to the larger issue.
But make no mistake: Jay J. Bolvin was the star of this show, as about 250 people marched in downtown Buffalo late Monday morning and then staged a noontime rally to end child abuse and neglect.
Several speakers even referred to him by name.
He’s living proof of child abuse and neglect, after having been beaten badly as an infant by his father. He also has become the centerpiece of proposed Albany legislation, Jay J.’s Law, to enact stricter penalties for repeat child abusers such as his father.
Jay J. doesn’t talk; he babbles, mimics sounds and has learned about 20 words or phrases in basic sign language, family members say. He walks now, although an adult always stays close, just in case. While relatives say they realize he may never be 100 percent, he has made a lot of progress, and they expect to put him in a school program next fall.
“You all see my nephew,” his great-uncle, Kevin Retzer, told the crowd on the steps of City Hall. “He suffered 11 broken bones and brain damage. We were initially told … not to expect much more than a vegetable in a wheelchair. We’re going to prove them wrong.”
The crowd roared.
At Monday’s event, organized locally by WECAN (WNY Ending Child Abuse and Neglect), Jay J., without uttering a word, turned child abuse from a societal issue into a human, personal story.
“With a child who is so harmed, when you meet them, it’s just heart-wrenching,” said Deborah A. Merrifield, a march organizer and executive director of the Family Help Center. “It’s a feeling of profound helplessness that we couldn’t be there in time to help them.”
The Buffalo march, a circuitous route from Lafayette Square to Niagara Square and City Hall, was one of about 300 conducted Monday in all 50 states, dubbed the “Million March Against Child Abuse and Neglect.” There have been 16 such annual marches in Buffalo, but organizers of the first nationwide event were hoping to attract about 250,000 people Monday.
Monday’s local event became a huge tent for people physically abused in all kinds of ways.
“I Was Shaken at 20 Months Old” read a sign on the back of a red Radio Flyer wagon that carried Kaydence Wild, now 3½, of Lackawanna.
“Child abuse has to end,” said his grandmother, Nancy Ferguson. “There’s too much of it. Our babies are being injured and killed at the hands of adults.”
Also marching were Carrie Ann Herrera and Kelly Kelly, two cousins of Jacqueline Wisniewski, who was killed by her estranged boyfriend at Erie County Medical Center last June.
Child abuse, Herrera explained, is a part of domestic violence.
“If you see it, report it,” she said. “If it’s happening to you, get out. And if you can’t get out, seek help.”
The presence of Jay J. revived talk about the proposed state legislation in his name, which failed to pass the Assembly last year.
Advocates for the abused boy say that he has received a life sentence, while his father was sentenced to only 16 months to four years in prison.
Jay J.’s Law would stiffen the penalties for repeat child-abuse offenders in four ways, including allowing some severe cases to be prosecuted as first-degree assaults. Lawmakers have speculated that the law, if in effect then, could have put his father in prison for up to 25 years.
John Mackowiak Jr., communications director for State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, said supporters of the legislation are working with legislators to make sure the bill has bipartisan support.
Why do its supporters think it has a better chance of passage this year?
“We’re starting the game clock a little bit earlier this year,” Mackowiak replied.
While Albany recently has passed several laws in memory of young victims, such as Kendra, Leandra and Megan, Jay J.’s Law would be named in honor of someone still alive.
Mayor Byron W. Brown, himself a former state legislator, cited the benefit of having a law named for a living, breathing individual.
“Jay J. is a powerful reminder that child abuse is real,” the mayor said, standing just a few steps from the boy. “It makes the legislation more powerful.”
Family members realize they’re making this fight for others.
“We don’t want any other family or child to go through what Jay J. and his family have gone through,” Kevin Retzer said before the event.
“Jay J. won’t benefit directly from Jay J.’s Law, so we’re fighting for every other child and parent.”
As his wife, Christine, said to the crowd, “We are here for the angels that were taken too soon, for the children that are living with the effects and trauma from abuse and for those that are still suffering in silence.”