Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Crime in rural Maine, as reported by (state and local) media (Part I): child deaths at the hands of caregivers

As will be clear from my last few posts, I have been in Maine for the last several days.  I spent the last few days mid-coast to downeast, between Portland and Acadia National Park.  This took me through Sagadahoc (35,293), Lincoln (population 34,457), Waldo (population 38,786), Knox (population 39,744) and Hancock (population 54,418) counties.  I found myself perusing the local newspapers--and listening to Maine Public Radio--as often as I could.  One theme that jumped out at me was crime in these largely rural environs.  In this post, I'm going to recount some of the headlines about crime, with particular attention in this Part I about child deaths at the hands of caregivers.

First, as I drove on April 30 and May 1, Maine Public Radio frequently repeated news of a conviction of a Wiscasset woman who had killed a 4-year old child in late 2017.  What was never clear from the broadcast  news stories was whether the child was Gatto's own?  Probably not, or that would have been specified.  But what was the woman's relationship to the child and how did she have the "opportunity" to neglect her?

In search of more information, I came across this story (from early April) in the Portland Press-Herald, which reveals so much.  Among other critical bits of context, the story reveals that Shawna Gatto, the 44-year-old convicted of "depraved indifference murder" was effectively the victim's grandmother.  That is, Gatto was engaged to the victim's grandfather, which raises really interesting issues of gender expectations and double standards.
[Assistant Attorney General Donald] Macomber cast Gatto as a woman who was overwhelmed by the circumstances of her life. She had raised two boys of her own and was looking forward to spending time with her fianc√©, Stephen Hood. Then one of her sons had a child and she became a full-time baby sitter. Then Chick, the daughter of Hood’s son, was placed with them because both of her parents struggled with substance use disorder. Finally, Gatto’s son had another child.

“She went from an empty-nester to caring for two toddlers and an infant, “all day, every day, by herself” the prosecutor said.

“She said she didn’t have any ‘me time,’” [Assistant Attorney General Donald] Macomber said, adding that Gatto would often call her mother to “let off steam” about how challenging the children were. “On Dec. 8, they talked for two hours."
Interestingly, the prosecutor seems to have played up Gatto's selfishness in wanting "me time." Indeed, it seems clear the woman was overwhelmed by caring for three young children.

That said, the injuries to the child were extensive:
at least 15 distinct injuries that were consistent with acute child abuse ... Chick died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen, which lacerated her pancreas, but she had head trauma as well, including a bruise that had forced one eye swollen shut.
Gatto's lawyer said at one point that he would argue the injuries were accidental, noting the child "was born drug-affected and was developmentally delayed and clumsy."  The population of Wiscasset, the seat of Lincoln County, is 3,732, but I note that Gatto was tried by a judge in Augusta.  I haven't read in any press a reason the trial was held in a neighboring county, but I did read that Gatto waived her right to a jury trial.

The Press-Herald report links to two related stories, one about the death of a 10-year-old in Stockton Springs (population 1,591),  just up the coast, a few months after Chick's death.  That death was also at the hands of a caregiver.  Another linked story is about the need for reform in Maine's child protection system.

Yet a third similar child death case from the mid-coast Maine area was on the front page of the April 25, 2019 issue of The Republican Journal, a weekly "serving twenty-six communities in Waldo County for 190 years."  The story by Jennifer Osborne (of the Ellsworth American, reporting on Hancock County) reports that a  judge had ruled that 21-year old Savannah Smith would be held without bail in the killing of two-year-old Kloe Hawksley, the daughter of Smith's boyfriend.  The death had occurred about 19 months earlier, but Smith was apparently not arrested until April of 2019, following the indictment by a grand jury.  Two of Smith's own three children had been taken into the custody of the the Maine Dept. of Health and Human Services on the day of Kloe's death, and the third child (apparently born just before Smith's arrest) was residing with its biological father.  At the bail hearing, the defense attorney (based on Bangor) had argued that Smith is "local," with numerous family members living in Bucksport, and also poor:
Her life is local.  Her set of contacts is local.  This is a family of limited means.  Most of them do not own property.
Later Smith's attorney spoke to the media on the courthouse steps:
Smith is young and never been in trouble.  She's upset.  Plus she gave birth three days before she was arrested.  I feel for her.  Hopefully, we'll sort this whole thing out.
Smith has been living in a Bucksport motel since the toddler's death, but a Maine DHHS supervisor testified about concerns over the woman's unstable living situation, in part because "methamphetamine users" have been living in the hotel room with Smith.  Plenty of tragedy all around in this story, and no doubt a lack of social service and other supports in this rural area.  As with the Wiscasset story, I find myself wanting to know more about the roles played by the man in the children's lives--here, Kloe's father, and in the case of Chick, the child's grandfather, who apparently lived with the woman convicted in the child's death.  How is it that women came to be charged but not men.  What evidence exculpated the men?  It would be great if the journalists told us more, and we can only assume the courts in the respective cases probed or will probe where the father and grandfather were and why the blame fell on the women.

Page A7 of that April 25, 2019 issue of the Republican Journal, under "Crime & Courts," reports on "Grand Jury Indictments" and "Waldo County Unified Court Closes Cases," and it also features a "Police Blotter."

I'll return to Part II of this series shortly; it will address the array of other rural criminal justice issues that showed up in the (mostly local) media during my recent visit.

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