Anger, sadness at Belfast vigil for murdered 10-year-old girl
BELFAST — It was an evening of mixed emotions as more than 100 people gathered in Belfast’s Town Square March 3, for a remembrance ceremony for Marissa Kennedy, the little girl allegedly slain by her mother and stepfather. A ceremony also took place Saturday in Bangor, and another in Stockton Springs today, March 4.
Marissa suffered multiple daily beatings for months at the hands of her mother and stepfather until she was unable to walk or speak without slurring, ultimately dying February 25. Her mother and stepfather were arrested the following day, both charged with depraved indifference murder.
It has been widely reported that suspicions of abuse were reported to both law enforcement and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), though Marissa was never removed from her home. That has led to anger and frustration across the state. A former student at Searsport Elementary, she had not been to school for months prior to her death.
The Midcoast community has expressed shock, horror, and outrage that Marissa’s death wasn’t prevented given the opportunities authorities were given to thoroughly investigate the matter.
The mood at the vigil varied from sorrow to anger, sometimes within the span of a single sentence, as members of the community took turns speaking before the gathered crowd.
Organizer Patty Beeton didn’t know Marissa personally, but she is a resident of Stockton Springs and her granddaughter was friendly with the girl. Beeton, who was overcome with emotion multiple times during the ceremony, said the night the letter was sent home from Searsport Elementary, where Marissa had been a student, she got a call from her daughter, asking for Beeton to speak with her grandmother, who was having a hard time.
“I’m sorry, but this child was failed,” said Beeton. “She was failed by everybody from DHHS, from the police department, from the schools, you know, when they’re saying they went to the house [to investigate reports of abuse] but they didn’t go in because the parents said [Marissa] wasn’t there, she was out with somebody, you know, you go in, you still have to go in,” she said.
Beeton said she and the community are angry, a sentiment shared by many who attended the vigil.
“Why did they not go in an remove these kids? I’m angry. The community’s angry. It never should have happened. The laws need to change,” she said, gaining strength in her voice, “[DHHS] has to get off their rear-ends and get people in there that are going to do what they’re supposed to, to protect these kids - they’ve got to.”
Fellow organizer Nancy Barlow said she just couldn’t believe someone could abuse such an innocent child.
“To do that daily to her, for months, and she just fell through the cracks. No one, no school, no [DHHS], no cops, no nothing [helped Marissa], and it just upsets me. Like a rage, and just heartbroken,” she said.
“You absolutely lose faith… in a lot of things,” she said.
At the start of the ceremony Beeton read a poem she wrote for Marissa, before the crowd was invited to speak, which many did.
With passing vehicles blaring their horns periodically, an emotional discussion got underway, with many coming forward to express their anger and frustration.
A woman who had worked with Marissa previously remembered her as a really good kid who appreciated the arts.
“She was quiet, but she enjoyed laughing and she really cared about other people,” she said, adding, “she didn’t deserve this.”
One of Marissa’s classmates also attended the vigil, quietly telling the crowd that Marissa was her friend, “and she was really friendly and she didn’t deserve this,” she said.
A Vietnam veteran expressed his anger at the situation and the way the incident is being handled by politicians in Augusta.
“I’m a veteran of this country and this is a terrible injustice, when people sit in these chairs and let them happen. Let this happen to an innocent child. What is wrong with people? All they care about are their paychecks,” he said to cheers of agreement from some of the crowd.
The man said the crime was one of the worst things he’d seen in his lifetime, “and I’m an old man,” he said.
Other members of the crowd echoed his thoughts, with one saying that the politicians in Augusta were hoping for this to blow over, with members of the crowd yelling back that ‘we won’t let them.’
“They’re covering their own butts. Let’s not let them do it, let’s not stand for it,” he said.
“Well yeah, that’s cause [DHHS] blew it,” another man yelled from the crowd.
Beeton said she is organizing a march in Augusta this summer to draw attention to demand justice for Marissa, “and every other kid [DHHS] has ignored.”
She said she had to stop reading the stories about Marissa because they were making her ill.
The woman who had worked with Marissa said she doesn’t understand how [DHHS] could turn a blind eye.
“They know how many more kids out there are living the same life she [was] living right now and no one is doing anything. She shouldn’t fall through the cracks,” she said, before going on to question how helpful police were in the situation, prompting another man to call through the crowd.
“How many cops you see out here,” he asked, leading many to scan the gathering before two Waldo County Sheriff’s Office deputies were spotted in the back.
After being invited to speak, Sgt. Nick Oettinger made his way through the crowd.
“At the Sheriff’s Office many of us are parents as well,” he said. “Two of our guys were the first responders there, both of them are parents, too. There isn’t a single one of us that walks away from that not feeling sick to our stomach. You’re never going to wrap your minds around something like this. All I can say, it’s pure evil. That’s all there is to it. We all signed up to do this job, we’re not perfect, but we signed up to stop pure evil and we grow frustrated just like a lot of the voices I’m hearing in the crowd here.”
Oettinger said there is frustration in law enforcement as well.
“We’re frustrated, too, because we put cases forward and sometimes children stay with families they shouldn’t be with and all we can do every day is come to work and try to put these people away from these kids to stop hurting them, and unfortunately some part of the system let this child down,” he said, leading some in the crowd to shout back that [DHHS] was the party responsible.
He told the crowd he didn’t think the frustration should stop there.
“I think people should have a voice to bring forward to try and get the system fixed and never let something like this happen again,” he said. “Myself and Deputy Rice over there wanted to show up and show our support. We are members of this community and we hurt for this girl, too.”
One person who works with the ASPCA said that when they get reports of animal abuse, they go into a home and remove the animal without any questions asked, something she admitted isn’t possible with a human being and their child.
“Who’s sticking up for the rights of this little child?” she asked.
Senator Mike Thibodeau also attended the vigil, speaking briefly to the crowd.
“Make no mistake, we’re all heartbroken, OK, I understand the anger. I understand the frustration. My wife and I sat on the couch just like all you did and we cried and cried about what happened. We’re going to find some answers and we’re going to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said.
One woman yelled from the crowd to ask Thibodeau how [the community] is going to deal with it.
“How are we going to deal with it? Funding cuts?” she said, referring to Governor Paul LePage’s proposed funding cuts to those among Maine’s most vulnerable populations.
She called the cuts unconscionable and hypocritical, saying: “We have a governor who constantly proselytizes about domestic violence, then cuts this program. I feel really angry about that,” she said to cheers of support.
Thibodeau said a bill had already been put in to take funding cuts out of the budget, and that he’s put forth a bill to have a public hearing on it in Augusta, which he invited everyone to attend.
“Show up in mass,” he said.
One person in attendance acutely aware of the difficulty working with DHHS was Isaac Hubbard, who has worked in the mental health field for over eight years.
Hubbard, who is currently with Sequelcare, said many times in his career part of his job has been battling with the state, “and it shouldn’t have been,” he said.
“That was actually, a lot of times, the harder part of the job, was dealing with DHHS,” he said. “I feel like their methods were often times very counterproductive. No matter how vocal we were about [suspected abuse], you know, the people working with the children and working with the families, no matter how vocal we were about it, it didn’t ever change.”
When asked whether he was surprised that something like this could happen around here, Hubbard said he was not, saying part of his job is working with kids who have gone through physical abuse and made it out alive.
“It’s always kind of that [mentality], that it happens elsewhere, but it doesn’t,” he said. “It happens literally all around us all the time. That was the hardest part of getting into the field was realizing this is very rampant and needed to change.”
Much of the public has been left to wonder just what people are supposed to do if complaints of suspicion of abuse aren’t taken seriously, which is something Hubbard said those in the field also struggle with.
“I think that’s kind of where we’re at right now,” he said. “How do we fix it? Because it’s not being fixed for us, so to speak. I think that’s kind of where we’re at right now is getting the ball rolling on how do we fix it.”
Hubbard said there have been many times where those in the field have given their recommendations on a possibly abused child only to be completely ignored and forced to watch the work they’d done with the children to fall apart.
He said everyone in the field talks about their frustrations in dealing with DHHS, and that they can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help.
“It’s devastating to watch, you know, you put all this work and effort [into helping a child] and see it get, you know, fall apart because of incompetence, and that needs to change because [DHHS] is sort of a stagnant organization. They’re not helping.”
Erica Thoms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org