November 1, 2013

Nemitz: Risk of tragic outcome followed Collins-Faunce

(Continued from page 1)

Jan Collins and Irv Faunce leave the York County Courthouse in Alfred on Wednesday after their son Gordon Collins-Faunce was sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing his infant son last year.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

AIRING IT OUT

TUNE IN to NewsRadio 560 WGAN at 8:08 a.m. today to hear columnist Bill Nemitz talk about this column and other issues.

Warning flags already abounded when Gordon and his girlfriend, Christina Henderson, moved in with Gordon’s biological father along with Henderson’s 2-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. In fact, Collins went so far as to call a DHHS hotline to alert the state that this was by no means a good environment for Gordon or the little girl.

“Nothing happened,” she told the judge.

Then, in early 2012, when Gordon and Christina became the parents of Ethan and his twin brother, Lucas, alarms began to sound.

Late that March, Ethan was treated for a broken arm at Southern Maine Medical Center in Biddeford. Rather than report the injury to the DHHS (now mandatory under a state law that has since taken effect for children younger than 6 months), the hospital apparently bought Gordon’s explanation that it was a crib accident.

The next month, an anonymous caller from the children’s day care center reported to the DHHS that Ethan was showing signs of serious neglect and possible abuse, including bruises and a fever so high that the center took him to the hospital on April 30.

That led to a two-hour home visit on May 2 by a DHHS caseworker. After examining Ethan and interviewing the parents, the worker found no immediate cause to remove the children from the home.

“The environment was acceptable. The parents were very engaging and cooperative. The children were not in immediate danger. And all of those things have to be looked at if we are to act immediately,” said Therese Cahill-Low, director of the DHHS’ Office of Child and Family Services, in an interview Thursday.

More investigation was indeed warranted, said Cahill-Low, notably the then-unsubstantiated report from the day care center that Ethan had suffered a broken arm. Six days later, however, well within DHHS’ 35-day deadline for running down that allegation, Ethan was dead.

“It’s hard, from our perspective, to intervene when we don’t know something has happened,” Cahill-Low said. “This was a huge tragedy and I do believe that there were times that others could have intervened.”

As Jan Collins and Irv Faunce now pore over their grandson’s DHHS case file (Faunce, representing the baby’s estate, has that right), more light undoubtedly will be shed on exactly who should have done what to protect Ethan. (Twin brother Lucas, along with Henderson’s daughter, are now in state custody pending adoption by a foster family.)

But what about Gordon? As he left his adoptive home, careened through a failed stint in the Army and then ran headlong into his own violent past, were there also missed opportunities to protect him from himself?

Finkelhor, at UNH, said such strategies do exist: a “Period of Purple Crying” program, which helps young parents (fathers in particular) cope with a constantly crying child; home visitations aimed specifically at parents who were abused as children; greater use of technology to track what’s going on in a household between a caseworker’s visits, to name a few.

“We do have a lot of things that have been shown to be effective in reducing (the cycle of child abuse),” Finkelhor said. The problem is “they’re not universal enough.”

Nor is society’s willingness, when confronted with what may or may not be child abuse, to pick up the phone and err on the side of the child.

Standing outside the courthouse as the sheriff’s van waited to take her son to prison for the next two decades, Collins allowed herself one fleeting memory of young Gordon, back in the good years, embracing his newfound life for all it was worth.

“He was so much fun when he was with us,” Collins said. “I can still remember him running on the beach … and laughing … and running in the water …”

His tortured past always close behind.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

Twitter: @billnemitz

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