PHOENIX – She was just a little girl, an 11-year-old little girl, starved, locked into her prison of a room each night, made to live in filth beyond belief, sent to school in clothes that stunk of cat feces and urine, who scavenged food from the trash and hoarded it in her school desk. And people knew. And people tried to help. But there was no saving Erin Maxwell, not from the stepbrother who strangled her, not from the stepmother who hated her, and not from the father who failed to protect her from the pure evil that surrounded her.
Erin Maxwell died 11 years ago in what is very likely the worst case of horrific child abuse this county has ever known, one that left many scars, much guilt, so many questions, and countless accusations and blame.
But that was not the point of the gathering Thursday evening, Feb. 20, at Michael A. Maroun Elementary, Erin’s elementary school. All those in attendance knew Erin’s story only too well. This night, on what would have been Erin Maxwell’s 23rd birthday, was a solemn civic memorial, a tribute, and a reflection on what has come of her death. For even out of her suffering, some good has come. And it was to remind all of that little girl, of her story, and of the good that is helping many today because of her, that Village Administrator Jim Lynch proclaimed this “Erin Maxwell Day” forever.
“We keep her memory alive and the most vulnerable in our society are being fed every weekend because of her,” Lynch read from the official proclamation.
“The little girl who was once found rummaging through a trash can in her classroom for food, is now watching down on a community drawn together in her honor feeding children every weekend. Phoenix is a richer place because of what we learned from Erin Maxwell’s life.”
Eleven years later, the words “Erin Maxwell” still bring tears, still chokes people up. The emotions are still raw. The trauma is obvious. People were changed by Erin Maxwell.
“For many years, I wished I had done more. I wish I could turn back time. I wish I could have not taken ‘no’ for an answer. I wish I could have just done more and prevented what happened to Erin,” said Jackie Flint, the mother of one of Erin’s classmates, who befriended Erin, reported her horrendous living conditions to authorities and still lives with a feeling of overwhelming guilt.
“I was the last person to call Child Protective Services on her family,” said Flint. “After she died, I was very involved in the aftermath that came about. I went to Oswego County Legislature meetings. I raised over 500 signatures to have Francis Lanigan removed as the head of CPS, particularly after the report came out from Albany that showed that they had made mistakes, that they were understaffed, and while they didn’t think they could have prevented her death, they certainly could have done more for her.
“I remember the morning waking up at 5:30 in the morning the day she was murdered and watching the news talk about a little girl in Palermo, and I knew it was her, and I knew that they had killed her. Since that time, I’ve kind of beat myself up for not doing more to press the issue when I had called before.
“There’s no better way to try to at least make something good out of it. I mean, here I am 11 years later, I can’t talk about her without crying and feeling responsible to some degree. There’s so many of us knew what was happening.
“I had my daughter and one of her friends over one night, they were nine or 10 years old at the time. And they were talking about a little girl who was digging out of the garbage and hoarding food in her desk, and how the teacher had to clear out her desk every night because she was hoarding food in there, and how she stunk. And I mean, alarms were just going off. So, I talked to them about it a little bit, and I counseled my daughter on how to behave, and I immediately called the school and I’m like, ‘Do you know that you have a child digging out of the garbage, and what are you doing about it?’ And the teacher called me and said, yes, they knew, and they were doing everything that they could. There was a big balancing act. One of the reasons I hemmed and hawed about calling CPS after having her over for a weekend was because I was afraid that if I called CPS, that they would cut me off from her, they’d never let her play with my daughter again. But I thought, if I called CPS and they went and saw the house, and saw everything I saw when I went and picked her up that day, there’s no way, no way, that they would leave her in that. I went in that house. I saw everything. And when she was murdered, all the pictures, all of the video, all the stuff that they show you, they tell you how deplorable the house was. It wasn’t any different the day I went in there. CPS will claim otherwise, but it’s not true. I mean, it was uninhabitable when I walked in there. I was in there five minutes, and I walked out, and I stunk. It was so bad. I had her for the weekend, I witnessed all of that stuff, and I thought, ‘There’s just no way that they’re (CPS) going to leave her there if I have them come out and look. And they did. I was appalled when they told me there wasn’t anything they could do. But I thought, well, okay, I did what I could. And a year later she died. And this is the guilt that weighs on me for 11 years. ‘Cause I think if that were my kid, I wouldn’t have accepted that as an answer. I wouldn’t have walked away and said, oh, okay.
“It’s very emotional. On her birthday I get emotional. When my oldest daughter achieves milestones, she graduated, she got her first car, she went to her prom. All of those things are things that remind me of what Erin would be doing. It’s surreal that she would be 23 today.”
For Jackie Flint, the Erin Maxwell story is a nightmare that may never end. After pretty much everyone else had congregated in Room 52 to commemorate the proclamation of “Erin Maxwell Day,” a man walked in who didn’t have to be there. After all, it’s been 11 years. But in talking with him it became quite obvious, Erin’s story has never ended for him either. Eleven years later, and the details of it all are right there in front of him as though it were yesterday. That man is Oswego County District Attorney Gregory Oakes.
We started talking about the changes brought on by Erin Maxwell’s death, but there was no way the conversation would end there. There was no way he could keep from remembering the horror of that night and of all he had learned later.
“At the county level there’s much more cooperation and communication between law enforcement, social services, community partners such as the Child Advocacy Center, Liberty Resources, and school districts,” Oakes began. “So, whenever a case is a concern, we’re talking to each other. Last week there was a case, a concern of a missing child at one of the school districts. The superintendent called me on my cell phone. We were talking to the state police, talking to the sheriff’s office, called the county attorney, reached out to DSS. Within a matter of 12 hours she was located, she was safe. That probably wouldn’t have occurred 10 years ago. Really, there’s been a lot of talk about we’ve all operated in silos. We’re prosecutors. In a different silo we’re police. We’re really trying to break those down and realize we’re just all working together. At the state level, unfortunately, things haven’t changed the way they needed to. We as prosecutors don’t have the tools we need to properly prosecute people when they abuse children in severe ways like this. Erin’s dad and stepmom are convicted of multiple counts of child endangerment. In NY state, there is no felony child endangerment statute. We have a felony animal abuse statute, but not a felony child endangerment statute. So, even though they were convicted of multiple counts of child abuse, child endangerment, the most they could get was two years in the local jail. They basically served two-thirds of that, and they were out. We need to improve that. Since Erin’s passing, I advocated and lobbied Albany asking for a felony child endangerment. Every year the bills get introduced in the Senate and the Assembly, but every year they go nowhere. Assemblyman Barclay and Senator Ritchie have been great. I’ve brought the issue to their attention. But every year, it seems there is a case of severe child abuse where I point to them and say, ‘Here’s a case where we need a felony child endangerment statute.’”
And then came the memories.
“Unfortunately, there is evil in this world,” he said. “There are some people who have mental health issues. There are some people who have behavioral problems because of abuse and trauma. But there are some people who, quite frankly, are just plain wicked. In this particular case, Alan Jones (Erin Maxwell’s stepbrother) was a monster. Her dad and stepmom were wicked human beings. Her dad had no spine to stand up and protect his daughter for whatever reason, whatever moral failing he had or failure of character, he wouldn’t protect his own daughter from his stepson and his stepwife. Lynn Maxwell’s co-workers told us about the horrific things she would say about Erin, joking about her death, joking about wanting to get rid of her. Just a horrific human being.”
And as he remembers, it gets more vivid.
“I was the on-call ADA (assistant district attorney), the on-call deputy coroner, the night Erin was killed. I responded to the state police barracks that evening. At one o’clock that morning, I went over with the state police and went in the home. And from the driveway the stench was so overwhelming it took me five attempts to get inside the house. Walking through the home, there was feces throughout the home, there were live chickens in cages in the kitchen, feces overflowing, there were cats in cages in the kitchen with feces overflowing. They had a parrot, or some sort of bird, feces just overflowing, dog poop throughout the house. When you stepped on the floor, it squished. You could step in parts and see liquid kind of come up. Her room was so tiny, with a door, like a bartender door, that came up about three-and-a-half, four feet, but then it was reinforced by a screen door that was reinforced with chicken wire, multiple latches to keep her locked in her room so she couldn’t get out. And in fact, during the course of the investigation, while I was in there, the screen door got knocked shut, and I was in the room, and as an adult, I could have forced my way out, but I was stuck in the room ‘til one of the officers came and let me out. There were cats throughout the house, but in the master bedroom, there were over 70 cats in the room. There were piles, piles of feces two, three feet high. And the smell of their urine. As we walked into the master bedroom, there was a little hallway, our eyes just watered. It’s like somebody dumped a 50-gallon container of ammonia in the room. We were in hazmat suits, had to remove all the cats to process the scene. Myself and the other investigators got scratched, one of the guys got bit. That following Tuesday, ‘cause it was Memorial Day weekend, we got called by the Health Department, ‘You need to get rabies shots. You need to go get all these other shots, tetanus shots, because we’re not sure how these animals were treated. So, we went through a course of all those shots, including rabies shots which were very painful.
“As part of the state police investigation, we built a timeline of around the time the 9-1-1 call came in from Alan Jones at the house. And to this day, I’m convinced it wasn’t a call for help. It was a call to build his story, to build his narrative that he wanted to sell. There was no concern in his voice, there’s no urgency. He was telling the 9-1-1 operator that he was performing CPR, but talking in a regular voice. Anybody’s been a first responder, in 20 seconds of giving chest compressions, you’re exhausted, you’re winded, you can’t breathe. And every officer, every first responder who’s heard this says, ‘There’s no way he’s doing it.’ He wouldn’t have his breath. When the EMTs arrived, he was in the kitchen, he said, ‘She’s that way.’ No concern. No remorse. But he contacted his mom and stepdad, and they were at Walmart shopping in Granby. Well, we pulled the footage. We could see where they got the call. They continued shopping in the store for some period after they got the phone call. No regard, no concern whatsoever. This girl wasn’t loved the way she deserved to be loved. In fact, she was despised by her stepmother. I can’t imagine any child living the way she did.”
Neither can Sheila Dion, founder of Erin’s Angels, an organization that ensures students in the Phoenix school district who need food get it.
“What inspired me was just knowing kids were hungry,” she said. “And as a mom, having kids myself, I can’t imagine that. And just as a person, I know when I’m hungry I get irritable and it’s no fun. So, if you think about a little child who’s hungry. They might be getting in trouble in school or at home because they’re hungry, because they can’t verbalize it. They’re just too little to verbalize that. I worked at the school district for a while in food service. When I worked at the high school, there were students that would come back up to the lunch line and say, ‘Mrs. Dion, can I have another apple or banana?’ And they would put it in their backpacks. So, when I went to the social worker and I told her it’s the same kids putting food in their backpacks, she said, ‘We need a backpack program.’ We were the only school at the time in Oswego County without one. And because of what happened with Erin, I think we should have been the first one.
“We started in 2017. We started really small with just 17 kids. And it very quickly grew to 34 and 58. The number just continued to rise as time went on, and we were able to take more on. We wanted to start small at first just to get our feet wet and see what it was like. But then when the number got up to 75 kids a week, we decided to partner with the Food Bank of Central NY to really make more of an impact. That allows us to give food to the kids that’s a little bit more nutritious. Their guidelines for sodium and things of that nature are stricter than, say, just going to Walmart and buying something. So, we’re able to get the food through them, and I’m really grateful for that partnership.
“The school social workers look at the free and reduced lunch list, and from there, they send letters home to the families basically saying, ‘You’re eligible for this Weekend Backpack program. If you choose that you don’t want to be part of it, you can send the letter back in. Normally, we don’t get any back. They all opt into it. Everything is anonymous. For the volunteers that pack the bags, they just know the number of kids per teacher. So, say, Mrs. Smith needs five bags. They’ll put those five bags in, and when the kids are at Music or Art, the teacher will come and get the bags and put them in their backpacks while they’re away. So, it’s done very anonymously, and the kids don’t stand out because of it. We serve K through sixth grade students with these food bags, and then, seventh through twelfth grade kids can also access the food via their school social worker or nurse. So, if they have a need, they can go and fill their backpack as well. It was really important to me that it’s not just the elementary kids because the older kids might need help too. So, really, we service the whole district K through 12.
“Statistically, one in four children in Oswego County is hungry,” Dion said. “Poverty is a problem, and it’s a very complicated issue certainly, but feeding a child is not complicated.”
Nevertheless, it still takes money.
“We rely on donations from the public and partnerships with companies and food donations via our Amazon wish list,” Dion explained. “No county money. None of this is school district money. We did get a grant once from the Shineman Foundation in Oswego. We got a $5,000 grant in 2017, a startup grant. It really helped us a lot.
“For a couple years I was kind of running it on my own with the help of volunteers, but now it’s more formalized with a board that’s really going to help drive us in the right direction.
“A few months ago, I contacted (Phoenix Village Administrator) Jim Lynch, and I said. ‘We’ve got this organization in Erin’s name, but I would love for there to be something more formal. So, would you consider doing a proclamation?, to which he replied, ‘Absolutely.’ And then when I contacted Jackie Flint, I bounce a lot of ideas off her because she had a personal relationship with Erin, and so, I told her about it, and she said, ‘Have it on her birthday, Feb. 20.’”
Jim Lynch apologized to those gathered together Thursday evening before he read the official proclamation. He’d read many things at many public events, and he’d gotten through all those just fine. But this was different, like it was for everyone else. It was hard not to choke up. And everyone understood. He did very well. Later, he said of the evening, “It was a beautiful thing.”
And he promised, as village administrator, “I’ll do my best, as long as I can, to recognize her on Feb. 20 of each year. In different ways, we’ll do something nice and appropriate each year.”
Sheila Dion summed the evening up well, speaking of the little girl whose story has made such a difference in so many ways, whose tragedy led to great kindness and concern.
“It’s fitting,” she said. “It’s on her birthday, and it’s in a place that she loved. She felt safe and cared for and loved in this school. So, it’s very fitting that it’s here, that it happened here tonight.”