BLOOMINGTON — Over the past 10 months, Matt Everly’s faith in God has been tested and affirmed. His faith in the criminal justice system still needs some repair.
Sitting in his living room in a comfortable ranch home on Bloomington’s east side with his wife, Emily, Everly struggles to make sense of his collision with the legal system that could have put him behind bars for life.
An associate pastor of worship at Eastview Christian Church in Normal before charges accusing him of aggravated battery of his infant daughter, Olivia, were filed in May, Everly said he is focused on the future.
PEORIA — The state’s child abuse case against Matt Everly relied heavily on the opinion of a…
"Finding a job is task one," said Everly, noting that Eastview "has not invited me back at this point" to resume what he considered "a dream job."
In late March, Everly and Emily took their 2-week-old daughter to the pediatrician after noticing swelling in her left leg. The first-time parents were directed by the baby’s doctor to OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.
The couple met with Dr. Channing Petrak, medical director of the Pediatric Resource Center. The couple was unaware of Petrak's specialty in child abuse detection until they returned home and read the packet of information given to them by center staff.
They also didn’t know they were suspected of harming their baby until the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services took custody of the infant and sent her home with Matt's parents.
Looking back, Emily Everly thinks Petrak's role “was misrepresented to us. We didn’t even know she was part of the investigation.”
While doctors examined Olivia’s injuries, the parents spoke with a DCFS investigator. Separate interviews of both parents followed at the hospital with Bloomington police detectives John Heinlen and Curt Maas. The 26-year-old father was interviewed a second time.
Both parents denied harming their child. In his second interview, Matt Everly said he may have applied too much pressure to the baby’s legs during a nighttime diaper change. Everly’s statement — considered a confession by police — set in motion eight months of the baby living without both parents and two court cases that racked up about $30,000 in legal fees and $25,000 in bond.
In an interview last week with The Pantagraph, the Everlys recalled meeting with authorities at the hospital. The focus of the conversation was on finding an explanation for what doctors determined were multiple fractures in both of the baby's legs.
The couple viewed police and the doctor as partners in the search for answers.
"We were both raised, and still believe for the most part, that police are there to help. And we didn't see Dr. Petrak as being against us — ever — until later," said Matt Everly, who was a mandated reporter of child abuse during his five years in the ministry.
During the trial, defense lawyer Scott Kording was critical of how BPD detectives handled the investigation, pointing to an assertion by Heinlen that follow-up interviews were unnecessary with other people who may have had contact with the baby.
Kording called the interrogation of the father "pathetic and shameful."
McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp said his office stands behind the BPD's work on the case.
"While some have certainly done as much, few have done more to protect children and others in this community than the Bloomington Police Department and the lead detective in this case," said Knapp.
After the trial, Kording said, "Ultimately the system worked, but there were a lot of missteps along the way by those in authority."
BPD Chief Clay Wheeler also defends the investigation, saying officers work with the state's attorney's office to determine what follow-up may be needed on a case. The state was unaware of the names of those who visited the baby until a list of defense witnesses was disclosed shortly before the trial, said Wheeler.
Matt Everly became a serious suspect after his statement about putting pressure on the child's legs, said Wheeler. "The only person who said something accounting for the injuries was the person charged," he said.
The trauma of a child abuse accusation was felt immediately by the parents.
The ride home from Peoria without Olivia "was horrible. We didn't know what to say to each other," said Emily, who was allowed to be with her daughter at her parents' home during the day, but was forced to leave at night — a challenging proposition for a breastfeeding mother.
After a week, Matt was allowed supervised visits five hours a day, four days a week with his daughter.
On April 2, the couple attended their first hearing in child abuse and neglect court. Emily sorted through the paperwork that spelled out the requirements for regaining custody of the baby. "It was like drinking from a fire hose," she said.
In the meantime, the Everlys learned during a check-up two weeks after Olivia's release from the hospital that she also had suffered a broken arm. The orthopedic physician's comment that the fracture was healing nicely caught the parents off guard.
"We were shocked. We wondered when we would had ever learned about it" from Olivia's doctors in Peoria, said Emily. Doctors believe the arm fracture dated back to March, but was not visible in earlier X-rays, according to medical testimony at Everly's trial.
In May, tests requested by the parents on Olivia ruled out genetic bone disease as a cause of the fractures. (Police had told the Everlys the tests had been done and no bone-related issues were detected.)
After the test results were returned, the state filed charges. Although not completely unexpected, Everly said he found the allegations "completely shocking" in number and severity. Family and friends raised the $25,000 he needed to be released from jail. He was forced to resign from his ministry post.
Everly found a job working the night shift at a cereal plant in Gridley, but has been unemployed since the business closed in December. Emily was allowed to move home with Olivia in July, but her husband had to stay elsewhere.
The state dropped the civil case in November without finding Everly responsible for the injuries. The decision allowed him to return home, but he remains on a DCFS list of child abusers, a designation he plans to challenge.
The experience of meeting the demands of the child welfare system left Emily feeling blessed for the support surrounding her family. She also became aware of the challenges other parents face when they lack such a network.
"We all have a lot of healing to do. It's been a really hard year. This is always going to be part of our story," said Emily.
Fully recovered from her medical issues, Olivia maneuvers across the floor between her parents and the family dog.
The Everlys still rely on their faith to lead them to the next step.
"I trusted my team and I trusted God. I knew he would get us to the other side of this. We had to take that leap of faith. We know God's up to something," said Matt Everly.
Contact Edith Brady-Lunny at (309) 820-3276. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_blunny