Every now and again, a news story emerges that is so horrifying it seems to stop us in our tracks.
What happened to 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy is one of those stories. Details about her life have been sparse so far, with school officials declining to share anything personal and few being willing to speak about the child. And we may feel as if we already know too much about her death last weekend behind the tidy facade of the Stockton Springs condominium where she lived with her family. Police have said Marissa died after allegedly suffering months of physical abuse at the hands of her mother, 33-year-old Sharon Carrillo, and her stepfather, 51-year-old Julio Carrillo.
The details of the alleged abuse and her death are grim, leaving Mainers wondering how it happened.
One statewide expert said it is important to pay attention to signs of abuse and then to take action.
“All individuals in the state of Maine are responsible for making sure that all our children are safe,” Dr. Lawrence Ricci, the medical director of the Spurwink Child Abuse Program, said. “We haven’t figured out yet how to stop children from slipping through the cracks. But every case offers the opportunity to help fill in those cracks a bit better.”
Infants and very young children are the most common targets for child abuse, he said. Nearly three-quarters of American children who died from abuse and neglect were younger than 3 years old, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And nearly 80 percent of child fatalities involved at least one parent. According to the report, an estimated 1,670 children died from abuse and neglect in 2015.
“We do see a lot of children who were abused physically. Most of the serious abuse we see is of infants,” Ricci said. “On rare occasions in Maine, but not uncommonly around the country, I must tell you, we will see an older child, a school-aged child who’s been chronically, profoundly abused. Who may well have shown signs, in the school, in the pediatrician’s office, in day care. But those signs were missed or ignored.”
In Maine, child abuse and neglect is defined by law. Abuse can include physical harm to a child, emotional harm or sexual abuse. Neglect means that a child is not getting essential needs met by a parent, or that parent is not protecting that child from harm. Here, many professionals, including doctors, counselors, teachers, social workers, and the police are so-called mandated reporters, required by law to report suspected abuse or neglect to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Ricci said any injury in a baby younger than 6 months old must be reported to Child Protective Services. For older children, though, it is not so cut and dry.
“Signs are most commonly bruises. Grab marks on the arm, on the cheek or on the neck,” he said. “Not uncommonly, we see implements or weapons, such as belts or electrical cords used, and sometimes that leaves marks. Sometimes, with older children, caretakers will hide bruises under clothing.”
Slap marks on the left side of the face (because most people are right-handed) and injuries to the buttocks are also red flags, he said.
“These are all things that even among school-aged children should warrant anyone, even non-professionals, to take note,” Ricci said. “Other things to look for are children who are very fearful and anxious. … But the absence of fear and anxiety does not necessarily mean the child is not being abused.”
Other signs can be heard rather than seen, he said. If a child makes statements such as ‘I was spanked,’ or ‘I was tied up,’ or ‘I was locked in the closet,’ that’s definitely something to pay attention to.
“If any of those statements are made, they should be taken very seriously and reported to professionals, such as school personnel, nurses or day care providers,” Ricci said.
Something else to listen for can be the reaction of the parent or caregiver. If they say their child is clumsy, check out their injuries.
“I wouldn’t be skeptical if the injuries look accidental,” Ricci said. “But neck, ears, buttocks — you don’t get injuries there from being clumsy.”
And, he said, it is important to pay attention to what happened to Marissa Kennedy.
“This is a good reminder that we obviously need to be watchful and alert, and when we see signs, our responsibility is to notify child protective services, and if it’s particularly severe law enforcement as well,” Ricci said. “One of the important things about a death like this would be for all of us to learn what went wrong and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
To locate your local Domestic Violence Resource Center, call the statewide helpline at 866-834-HELP (4357) or visit www.mcedv.org. For resources or support to prevent child abuse, call 1-800-422-4453.