When Sylvia Likens was murdered, she left behind a fractured family

The gruesome murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens at the hands of the Baniszewski family is still considered one of the most disturbing crimes in the history of Indiana. While the violent crime itself will likely never leave the discussion, the shattered family that Sylvia left behind is far less talked about. Who were tasked with keeping Sylvia safe and accidentally delivered her into the hands of a monster?

Lester C. Likens

Lester C. Likens, Sylvia’s father, didn’t get an easy start in fatherhood. His wife, Betty, gave birth to two sets of twins: Diana and Danny (eldest) and Jenny and Benny (youngest). Sylvia was the middle child. Still, even though Lester was supporting a family of seven, he was an exemplary father to his five children.

He spent much of his parental years working hard labor to ensure his kids had a roof over their heads. Infrequently, the children would spend time with neighbors or friends during difficult work months. However, typically, Lester kept his kids by his side. Unfortunately, this all changed when the family began to hit patches of conflict.

Lester and his wife, Betty, were often separated. One night, Lester found his children waiting at the nearby house of a seemingly trustworthy local, Mrs. Baniszewski, who said that his wife was in jail. Unknowing of her instability, he left his kiddos with Mrs. Baniszewski overnight. When Lester returned, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

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After scoring a carnival touring gig with Betty, Lester left young Sylvia and Jenny behind with the Baniszewskis, unaware that they were running a house of horrors. Lester paid $20 a week for both girls to be boarded by Miss. Baniszewski. Unfortunately, after he sent in a late check to the sociopathic woman, she began to abuse Sylvia.

After a few weeks, Sylvia was murdered in the Baniszewski household. Lester was devastated, and his intensive, emotional, and honesty testimony during Mrs. Baniszewski’s trial helped get her convicted for his daughter’s murder.

Betty Likens

Although Betty loved her children, her marriage to Lester was tumultuous. The couple frequently went through periods of separation, which often came about after job struggles or legal trouble on Betty’s part. Despite their conflict, Jenny Likens thought of Betty as a good mother…even when she left Jenny and Sylvia behind with the horrific Mrs. Baniszewski.

Jenny Likens thought of Betty as a good mother

After Sylvia’s murder, Betty seemed to shoulder immense guilt over the death of her daughter. Although her husband was able to compose himself in court, she struggled to testify due to her overwhelming grief. She perhaps felt that she could not be forgiven after leaving her daughters behind with a cold-blooded killer (particularly since they first stayed with Mrs. Baniszewski after Betty had been arrested).

Dianna Likens Bedwell

Diana Likens Bedwell might have prevented the murder of Sylviaif only their social worker would have stepped inside. Diana, Sylvia’s older sister, was warned about the house’s potential dangers from her sisters. Jenny and Sylvia called Dianna from within the home and begged for her help. At first, she figured her siblings were being melodramatic, yet she soon realized that something was terribly wrong.

After more suspicious behavior from Jenny, Dianna called social services. Unfortunately, Jenny (at Miss. Baniszewski’s prompting) lied to the agent and told them that Sylvia had run away. Had social services stepped inside, they would’ve seen the horrors waiting beyond the doorway.

When asked if there was anything she wanted the world to know about her sisters, Dianna shared:

They were both sweet, kind, loving, and trusting….My sister (Sylvia) didn’t even get to taste life. She was yanked up too early for any young lady. I just want everyone to know they were just sweet young ladies.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

The Baniszewski household may be cheap…but you might not want to live there after learning its history

These may have been some of the struggles that led Betty and Lester to leave their girls behind