ORONO, Maine — Tracey Haskell never saw a mark on her niece or nephew, but in the months since the children’s parents died in a domestic violence homicide and police shooting, the emotional scars from having lived in an abusive environment have become apparent.
“I have a unique perspective,” she said about her late sister’s orphaned children Aidyn, 5, and Chelsea, 20 months. “I saw them before.”
On Oct. 9, April Haskell, 35, was stabbed to death by her longtime boyfriend, Christopher Ouellette, 28, in the apartment they shared in Old Town. Ouellette later was shot and killed by a Maine State Police trooper after local police rescued the couple ’s two children. Haskell was pregnant with the couple’s third child, a boy who was due this month.
The horrific incident caused a flash of media attention in the city of 7,800, and again put a spotlight on Maine’s chronic domestic violence problem.
Now that some time has passed, Tracey Haskell of Orono said she is dealing with the seldom-seen side of domestic violence homicide — what happens to the children left behind.
Two days after her sister’s murder, Haskell was named legal guardian of Chelsea and Aidyn, her late sister’s youngest children. (April Haskell’s older son, Josh, 15, lives with his father in Dexter and her oldest daughter, Kathleen, 18, lives in Bangor.)
Signs of the abuse that Chelsea and Aidyn witnessed are apparent since leaving their parents’ residence, a place of constant conflict, Haskell said.
Her 5-year-old nephew was always reserved and was identified as having several developmental problems. Now, Haskell said, he is an outgoing, rambunctious boy who no longer needs as much special attention at preschool.
His little sister, too young to express her feelings in words, also has brightened, according to Haskell.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said of the terrible circumstances that led to the children’s improvement.
Effect on Maine children
What happened to April Haskell’s children before and after her death is more common than one might imagine.
There were 5,593 domestic violence assaults reported to Maine police in 2012, according to the most recent FBI data available, and more than 13,250 Mainers — including 648 children — were helped in 2013 by the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence or member partners.
Half of Maine’s homicides involve domestic violence, a percentage unchanged even with increased awareness about domestic violence over the last few years, said Assistant Attorney General William Stokes.
“That is what is frustrating to those of us who have years in this line of work,” said Stokes, who leads the criminal prosecution division within the Maine attorney general’s office.
April Haskell’s death was one of 11 related to domestic violence out of the 24 homicides that occurred in Maine last year. The last occurred on Christmas Day in Ellsworth, where the mother of two young children, 29-year-old Hillary Saenz, allegedly was killed by her husband.
Experts agree children living in a home where domestic violence occurs can suffer harm for years.
Children raised in a violent home may experience low self-esteem, feelings of guilt or responsibility for the family’s problems, depression, anger or emotional withdrawal. Without mental health counseling, said Asa Russell, a counselor who specializes in trauma and post-traumatic stress syndrome, children will hold those feelings inside.
“When we come from the perspective of brain development, a child’s most significant ‘wiring’ takes place in the years during which they are most vulnerable to disturbances in their home environment,” said Russell, who works in Brunswick. “If the brain’s threat detection system is overstimulated during its development, it can cause it to be more sensitive than might otherwise be expected. The result is anxiety and other symptoms that result in behavioral manifestations.”
These feelings may result in outward aggressive behavior, bullying, learning disabilities and physically hurting themselves or animals. Russell said even adults who may not recall witnessing violence as children will still feel, and show, the effects.
“It is very important that children receive emotional support and mental health care as they work to understand and integrate their experiences into their sense of self,” he said.
As the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry puts it: “Parents or caregivers involved in a violent relationship may think that the fighting does not affect their children. Even children who do not see domestic violence are affected by the conflict in the family.”
Tracey Haskell said she understands that statement now all too well.
“Slowly they have started to come out of their shells and become more comfortable,” she said of her sister’s children. “We just thought they were quiet and matter-of-fact. That is really not them.”
The changes in the children have been astonishing to some, including Aidyn’s preschool teachers, family friends, and to Haskell.
“It’s been profound,” she said. “I wish I could have videotaped it. It’s so amazing how much different they are.”
‘She could hold her own’
Tracey Haskell saw the warning signs that her sister and her children were in a bad situation. Dealing with her sister’s longtime boyfriend was akin to “walking on eggshells,” she said.
“I had to censor everything so he wouldn’t get upset,” Haskell said about conversations, calls and texts she had with her sister. “Every second of every day, he was controlling. When he couldn’t be in control, that’s when he would be like a little kid throwing a tantrum.”
“It was awful,” she said.
His jealous and controlling behavior also had an effect on Haskell, who encouraged her sister to leave Ouellette. But as the years passed she just avoided discussing him.
April Haskell took steps to protect herself and her children, including getting a protection order in August, shortly after learning she was pregnant and deciding to end her relationship with Ouellette. She died protecting her children, her sister believes.
“She had to know those kids were in danger,” Tracey Haskell said. “She had to make life choices in those seconds.”
While she knew her sister was in a controlling relationship, she never thought Ouellette would be able to physically hurt her.
“She could hold her own,” Tracey Haskell said. “I didn’t worry about her — that was one of the hardest things.”
Effect of abuse
When his parents started to argue on Oct. 9, Aidyn did what he had been conditioned to do after surviving years of conflict: He tried to get out of the way and took his little sister with him.
“When they started fighting, he took Chelsea for a snack,” Haskell said. “Those are the things he learned.”
Tracey Haskell’s 11-year-old daughter, Riley Pearsall, said her cousin Aidyn saved his little sister’s life.
“He told me at 4 in the morning,” the youngster said. “He told me what happened, how it all started and what he tried to do.”
“In his dreams, he saves them both,” Haskell said of Aidyn.
“We try not to discuss it, but if he starts we don’t stop him,” she said. “We don’t want those bad memories bottled up inside him.”
Aidyn, his aunt believes, created his own barriers in response to the abuse.
“He was so delayed,” Haskell said of her nephew. “He had a hard time running. He tripped on his own feet. He couldn’t even dress himself.”
She met with a dozen staff members at his preschool, Greenhouse Nursery in Milford, to discuss his personal education plan shortly after he returned to school following the fatal incident.
“He needed so many services — speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy — they did a lot of everything,” Haskell said. “To get him ready for kindergarten, they were putting all these actions into place.”
Many of the services and action plans now have been reduced or eliminated outright because of his improvement.
“They were convinced they could not do things,” Tracey Haskell said of her niece and nephew. “That is how [Ouellette] wanted it. Now, [Aidyn] gets himself dressed and he’s so excited he can do it. [Chelsea] has really started to talk.”
The drastic changes in the children’s behaviors since leaving the abusive household “is how we know they were affected by it,” Aidyn’s teacher, Lynn Faerber, said.
Haskell and her life partner, Jim Pearsall, have five children of their own, ages 6-19. Shortly after Haskell and Pearsall decided to take in her sister’s two children, they discovered unforeseen problems, mostly dealing with space.
The family of seven already was crammed into a small two-story rental house. It has been a struggle to fit in the two children along with Tracey’s brother and his girlfriend, Christopher Haskell and Desiree Parady, who were living with April in Old Town.
“We’re still in the process of figuring everything out,” she said.
“It’s been busy,” echoed Pearsall.
Christopher Haskell and Parady lived with his sister in Old Town for about a month before the tragedy, which occurred while they were away at work. The couple’s presence has been a stabilizer for the children, Tracey Haskell said.
Chelsea is sleeping in a crib for the first time in her life, and Aidyn slept on a spare mattress until members of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office played Santa and brought in bunk beds on Christmas Day donated by Tuffy Bear Discount Furniture in Bangor, one of many local businesses that supported the secret Santa program.
The family realized transportation was going to be a problem when they were invited to dinner in Millinocket and the nine of them headed outside to get into the seven-passenger minivan.
“We didn’t realize that until the first time we went someplace,” said Haskell, who added the couple is now looking for an affordable nine-person van.
Ultimately, the logistical problems of their expanded household pale in comparison to concerns about Aidyn and Chelsea. Haskell and Pearsall are aware the children still have problems that need to be worked out and have continued Aidyn’s weekly counseling sessions to give him time to comes to terms with the abuse and how his parents died. As their legal guardian, she has taken over their care and upbringing and is responsible for all the parenting decisions.
Tracey Haskell said her nephew has asked her why she and Jim don’t fight. She assured him they do have disagreements, but handle them by talking through them. That question tells the story, she said.
Haskell said the loss of her sister has been bitter, but the positive changes in the children is amazingly sweet.
“They have just blossomed,” she said.