November 1, 2013

Nemitz: Risk of tragic outcome followed Collins-Faunce

After the tearful testimony, after the recitation of how Gordon Collins-Faunce ended his 10-week-old son’s life in a moment of uncontrolled anger, after the judge handed down the 20-year prison sentence, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese paused outside the York County Courthouse to reflect on a painful reality.

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

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“Standing back, we can all say, ‘Boy, that was an intervention point … and that was an intervention point,’ ” Marchese said. “And it’s most unfortunate that no one ever stepped in to save this child.”

“Most unfortunate” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Gordon Collins-Faunce, 24, said next to nothing Wednesday as Justice John O’Neil accepted his guilty pleas to manslaughter and assault in the death of his son Ethan in May of 2012 at their home in Arundel.

But Jan Collins, Collins-Faunce’s adoptive mother, had plenty to say about a child welfare system that, in her opinion, should have seen this coming. Starting, she told the court, with the documented baggage that accompanied young Gordon when he and his two sisters arrived at the doorstep of her and her husband, Irv Faunce, 15 long years ago.

“Kicks, puncture marks, head injuries, facial injuries, shaking or tossing, witness to abuse of animals, witness to abuse of siblings, lack of affection, failure to thrive, infestations, lack of nurturance, lack of medical attention, intentional poisoning, forced to observe and participate in sexual activity, oral sex, intercourse, forced masturbation … the list goes on,” Collins read through her tears.

“But the list wasn’t just for Gordon’s birth home,” she continued. “The list includes three homes that followed – three homes provided by (Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services) as part of the foster program.”

Put more simply, what went around in Gordon Collins-Faunce’s hellish childhood eventually came around in his early adulthood. The boy who thought he’d gone to heaven when his adoptive parents welcomed him and his sisters into their home (and hearts) back in 1997 is now a man – convicted not just of abusing his own child, but of killing him.

All of which raises a vexing question about the so-called cycle of child abuse: Was this inevitable? Was Collins-Faunce, despite the love and care showered on him in his adoptive home for nine years before he struck out on his own, destined to inflict on his offspring the same horrors that decimated his own early childhood?

“A bad outcome is not an inevitability – we do have good interventions for turning kids around who have had a bad beginning,” said David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, in an interview Thursday.

That said, Finkelhor added, “the dangers and risks are still there and there may be some kids who are so badly damaged that a tragic outcome is a pretty high likelihood.”

Identifying that latter group, while there’s still time, is the hard part.

By Collins’ account, the near-decade she and her husband shared with Gordon and his two sisters was by any measure “the good years.”

“For all they had been through, Gordon and his sisters were full of laughter, eager to please, ready to enjoy and experience all that they had missed,” she told the judge, recalling how polite and well-behaved the kids were in public and at home, how they never hit one another, how they played in the school band, how they loved to camp, how they once donated their allowances to a heating fuel fund …

“Still,” Collins said, “the clock was ticking.”

One by one in their late teens, without their adoptive parents’ knowledge, the three siblings reconnected with their birth parents. And as they reforged those dysfunctional bonds, the Collins-Faunce family’s tenderly woven tapestry began to unravel.

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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