They lost their daughter to suicide. Now these Pa. parents are looking for justice | John L. Micek

September 19, 2019 12:56 pm

Jackie Bieber, of York County, whose daughter, Shawn Shatto, 25, died by suicide earlier this year, speaks during a news conference in the Pa. Capitol rotunda on Sept. 19, 2019 (Capital-Star photo).

Fighting back tears, her voice cracking, Jackie Bieber had a simple message for anyone who’s thinking about taking their own life: “There is always life,” she said. “There is always hope.”

It’s a message that no parent ever hopes they have to deliver.

In May, Bieber’s 25-year-old daughter, Shawn Shatto — egged on by a ghoulish online community that provided her with not only encouragement, but step-by-step instructions on how to kill herself — died by suicide in York County.

And when she hesitated, when she had second thoughts, they pushed her to follow through, telling her death was the only escape.

“Disgusting. Appalling. Unacceptable.” Jackie Bieber barked out the words. Her husband, Chip Bieber, holding a framed photo of their daughter, stood at his wife’s side.

Appalling? That doesn’t even begin to cover it.

That’s especially true when you consider that the Biebers only learned about their daughter’s involvement with this online community when the paged through her phone after her death. Worse, they said they received an email from one forum member inquiring whether Shatto had died peacefully.

There’s no collection of adjectives that adequately captures the trauma of losing a child — especially when, as the Biebers believe, anonymous faces, lurking online, steered Shawn Shatto on her tragic course.

On Thursday, state Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-York, rolled out legislation that she hopes will prevent such future tragedies. She’s calling it “Shawn’s Law.” It’s now before the House Judiciary Committee.

If it’s eventually approved by the full Legislature, and signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf, the proposal would allow prosecutors to impose additional penalties on those who encourage or instruct others on how to take their own lives.

Right now, the state punishes such offenses, depending on their severity, with a second-degree misdemeanor or a second-degree felony. The former carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and $5,000 in fines; the latter is punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison. Keefer’s bill would increase penalties in cases where the victim is aged 18 or younger or suffers from an intellectual disability.

State Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-York, speaks during a news conference in the Pa. Capitol rotunda on 9/19/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

The York County District Attorney’s office, along with local police, are continuing to investigate Shatto’s death. So far, no one has been arrested or charged in that investigation, York County First Assistant District Attorney Tim Barker said.

Speaking to reporters after the event, Keefer acknowledged that Shatto would fit neither criteria under her proposal. But, she stressed, it’s important for law enforcement to have broad latitude to prosecute such offenses.

Just days earlier, in the same spot in the Capitol rotunda, anti-gun violence advocates and their legislative allies, called on lawmakers to pass extreme risk protection orders, which they are say are a critical tool in preventing gun suicides.

if you’re struggling, or lf you need help, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, The line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Both events come as Pennsylvania — and the rest of the nation — observes Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. And while it seems cliche to say it, it bears repeating:

While it’s important to have a month to focus attention on what’s effectively a public health epidemic, this is a discussion we should be having every day, around our dinner tables; our school classrooms; our church, mosque, and synagogue meeting rooms; or even around the office watercooler.

This year, some 2,000 Pennsylvanians will die by suicide, data shows. About half those deaths will be by firearm. Think about that number for a moment: 2,000 people. That’s a population roughly equivalent to New Hope Borough in Bucks County getting wiped out every year.

During an appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball” program on Wednesday night, U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, spoke movingly of the need to allocate more resources to mental health treatment and suicide prevention. Earlier this year, Wild’s partner, Kerry Acker, died by suicide.

In an emotional speech from the U.S. House floor in June, a month after Acker’s death, Wild, of Allentown, called America’s battle against mental health issues a “national emergency.” As the Washington Post reported earlier this month, Wild has taken her grief and put it to work through legislation and public events.

“Every community in our country has been touched in some way by major mental health challenges,” Wild said during that June floor speech. “Removing the stigma cannot just be a slogan. We need to make it real through our actions.”

Shawn Shatto’s death, along with the deaths of tens of thousands of others across Pennsylvania and the nation, is vivid evidence that suicide spares no one — regardless of class, race, education, or income. As was the case with Wild, Jackie Bieber called Thursday for more support for mental health treatment and support for those living with intellectual disabilities.

It also matters how we talk about the issue, the language we use to describe it, by not saying someone “committed suicide,” which implies criminality, but “died by suicide,” which helps lift the stigma associated with the act. That’s also the aim of a resolution, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer O’Mara, D-Chester, that cleared a state House committee on Thursday. Her father, a firefighter, died by gun suicide when she was 13.

All of that’s important. Keefer’s bill and O’Mara’s resolution are critical. But so are the little steps.

That’s reaching out a hand to those who are in pain, those who are struggling, those who are feeling the pull of the shadows, and reminding them that they’re never, ever alone.

That we remind them, as Jackie Bieber said, that there is always life. There is always hope.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.