There is little evidence that Kendall Chick ever existed.

No birth announcement printed in any local newspaper after she was born on Nov. 26, 2013.

No obituary published following her death on Dec. 8, 2017, less than two weeks after her fourth birthday.

No wake or viewing or memorial service or funeral.

The only event honoring her memory was a vigil in Wiscasset, where she had lived, organized not by a grieving family member but by a woman who didn’t know the girl.

That woman, Erica Sherman, said that, with a few exceptions, the dozens who attended the vigil also did not know Kendall or her family. They simply wanted to show support for a girl who had no voice.

“If nothing else, I think people wanted to draw awareness to child abuse,” said Sherman, who has two young children. “A lot of us see stuff, but how often do we say anything?”

Kendall died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen but had suffered from prior abuse and neglect as well, according to police. Her entire life, it seemed, was defined by tumult.

Hers was the first of two recent deaths in Maine blamed on child abuse, both of which are now the subject of an investigation by the Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. The other child, 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs, died Feb. 25, and police believe she was beaten to death by her mother and stepfather, who are charged in her killing. The deaths come amid a dramatic increase in confirmed cases of physical abuse of children in Maine – 52 percent over an eight-year period.

Until her death in December, 4-year-old Kendall Chick lived with her paternal grandfather, Stephen Hood, and his fiancée, Shawna Gatto, in this doublewide mobile home on Crickets Lane in Wiscasset. “It looks like an obvious case of child abuse, but I’m here to say that it’s not,” Hood, 54, wrote in a text message to the Maine Sunday Telegram. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Kendall was born drug-affected, another child of Maine’s intractable opioid crisis that has led to a record number of overdose deaths and shows no sign of abatement even as policymakers search for solutions. She had been removed from her birth parents’ custody early in her life, and there is a distinct possibility that neither even knows she is dead.

She was placed by the state Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Protective Services division with Stephen Hood, her paternal grandfather, and Shawna Gatto, his fiancée, the latter of whom has been charged with her killing. The charge is depraved indifference murder, a classification signifying that the accused showed no regard for the value of human life.

The one person most able to shed light on Kendall’s short life – Hood – has been reluctant to talk about his granddaughter or his fiancée’s case. But staying silent hasn’t been easy.

“It looks like an obvious case of child abuse, but I’m here to say that it’s not,” Hood, 54, said in a text message to the Maine Sunday Telegram, one of several exchanged over the course of two months. “I never once saw Shawna hit Kendall anywhere other than the butt, and she didn’t even want to do that.”

Shawna Gatto, 43, of Wiscasset, enters Lincoln County Superior Court on Jan. 12, where she pleaded not guilty to a charge of depraved indifference murder in connection with Kendall Chick’s death. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

More is likely to come out through court proceedings. Gatto, who is being held at Two Bridges Regional Jail in lieu of $150,000 bail, has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial this fall.

Through her attorney, Philip Cohen of Waldoboro, she declined to speak with a reporter. Cohen also said he didn’t wish to discuss the case.

He and state prosecutors are in the process of going through evidence.

Part of that evidence, according to a letter submitted to the court on Feb. 1, will be DHHS records related to Kendall’s parents and her removal from their care.

No matter how the case is resolved, Kendall’s life will be defined by how she died rather than how she lived.

PARENTS’ WHEREABOUTS UNKNOWN

Hood called his granddaughter his “little ray of sunshine.” Most days when he came home from the day shift at Bath Iron Works, he said, the toddler would greet him at the door with a smile and open arms.

He said the girl’s parents both struggled with addiction. Although he wouldn’t provide their names, he said Kendall’s father is his son.

In late 2016 or early 2017, Hood said, a concerned neighbor called police on Kendall’s mother. State officials went in and found that the girl was being neglected. The state took custody of Kendall. In January 2017, Hood said he got a call asking whether his granddaughter could live with him.

Hood said he doesn’t know where Kendall’s mother is and doesn’t know where his son is, either.

He doesn’t know if they even know their daughter has died.

Gatto’s attorney confirmed that at least one of Kendall’s parents is struggling with addiction, but he also declined to share their names.

“We haven’t been able to locate them,” Cohen said, adding that he believed they were “on the street.”

In cases like this, detectives would notify next of kin about a death, according to Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine State Police. In Kendall’s case, though, she had been placed by the state in the custody of Hood and Gatto, and they were already aware.

McCausland said detectives did not make any attempts to notify the birth parents and said he didn’t know their names.

Hood said he last heard that Kendall’s mother was at a psychiatric hospital in the Portland area.

As the opioid crisis has gripped Maine, the number of drug-affected babies – children born to women who are actively abusing drugs – has increased dramatically from 165 in 2005 to 952 last year.

Dr. Stephen Meister, an Augusta pediatrician and longtime member of the state’s child death and injury panel, said babies born to opioid-addicted mothers can have problems, but he said exposure to tobacco or alcohol often can have longer-lasting effects than exposure to narcotics.

“These babies can do well,” he said of opioid-affected infants. “The challenge is with ongoing substance abuse by parents. If they don’t get involved in drug treatment, their babies are at risk of abuse or neglect.”

“If she was taken from her parents, there is the possibility she had attachment problems but also traumatic stress from having been exposed with substance abuse problems,” Meister said. “These kids can be really hard to care for.”

Gatto has spent much of her life in the midcoast, with family in Harpswell. Hood lived in Brunswick before moving to Wiscasset and has worked at BIW for more than a decade. Both have adult children.

Hood said he and Gatto weren’t necessarily expecting to take in Kendall but that they provided her a loving home, a doublewide trailer on a quiet dead-end road off Old Bath Road, which runs mostly parallel to Route 1 east of downtown Wiscasset.

He said they sometimes disciplined her with spankings and timeouts but never more than that.

He said Kendall was developmentally delayed and uncoordinated. She fell down often and didn’t always protect her head. They debated getting a helmet for her to wear, Hood said.

“When we got Kendall she was behind in development but made leaps and bounds with us,” he said.

‘WE’RE LOSING HER’

On the day Kendall died, Hood was at work and Gatto, who most recently had worked for a hospice agency in Brunswick, was home watching Kendall, as well as two of her own grandchildren, a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old.

When Hood arrived home at 3:30 p.m., Kendall didn’t greet him at the door, which was unusual. Gatto told him the girl had “messed herself and she was in timeout in the bathtub.”

Hood went outside to check on his chickens. Less than an hour later, he was calling 911.

The transcript of that call between the dispatcher and Hood and Gatto is heavily redacted, but it reveals the frantic moments after they found Kendall unconscious.

“I have an emergency,” Hood told the dispatcher. “My granddaughter is unresponsive.”

Throughout the conversation, Gatto can be heard in the background, sometimes crying. At one point, Hood says, “We’re losing her.”

There is a back-and-forth between Hood and Gatto that is largely redacted, but it’s clear they are arguing. At one point, Hood says to her, “What are you doing?”

“Sir? Arguing with her is not going to help. Listen to me,” the dispatcher says to Hood. “What is she saying?”

The dispatcher then instructed Hood to put the call on speaker. Later in the call, Gatto can be heard saying, “She had fallen a while ago. … Like, two days ago.”

According to the arrest affidavit, Gatto texted her daughter-in-law, Danielle Coffin, who worked at a hospital in Brunswick, one minute before that 911 call was placed.

“U need to get home now I think Kendall is dead,” it read.

The official cause of Kendall’s death was blunt force to the abdomen. The state medical examiner’s office estimated that the fatal blow came within the previous 12 hours. Her pancreas and gastro-colonic membranes were lacerated.

A “contributory cause of death” was multiple blunt force trauma to the head that caused bleeding under the scalp.

But the girl had signs of other injuries. There were many other bruises and cuts on her head, her neck and her arms and legs. There was blood in the bathtub, in her bed, on paper towels in a trash can and on a towel in a clothes hamper.

When Coffin messaged her mother-in-law back, she wrote, “I’ve never seen something so bad in my life.” And then, “Did she hit her head off something? That was horrible.”

The medical examiner also did a microscopic examination of the girl’s thymus gland, which produced T cells to help fight infection, and found that it showed signs of “chronic physiological stress.”

That alone doesn’t necessarily mean Kendall suffered from long-term abuse, only that the stress in her short life was taking a toll on her body.

In the arrest affidavit, detectives concluded that Gatto’s explanations of Kendall’s injuries didn’t add up.

For example, when police asked how the girl bruised her eye, Hood told them Gatto had told him she had run into a coffee table.

In a separate interview, she told a detective Kendall had run into a door jamb.

KENDALL’S MEDICAL HISTORY

Hood can’t explain the blunt force trauma to Kendall’s abdomen – the official cause of death from the state medical examiner’s office. Kendall had recently started climbing on countertops to get snacks when no one was looking. He wonders whether she might have fallen from the counter.

Hood said he knows how it looks. He said police have told him he was fooled into believing Gatto.

But he said the behavior doesn’t match the woman with whom he’s shared the last 12 years.

He said police never considered the alternative – that Kendall Chick, another child in the long line of Maine children born into the opioid crisis, was developmentally delayed and extraordinarily clumsy.

“The police would not wrap there (sic) minds around the fact that my granddaughter was very accident prone,” he said. “I would have known if there were any child abuse going on in my house. This will all come out. There are several people in our family that have witnessed firsthand some of the accidents.”

When police interviewed Hood, he told them that two weeks before Kendall’s death, he saw a bruise on Kendall’s face. He asked her if her Mimi, meaning Gatto, caused it. Kendall replied, “No, I fall down.”

Meister, the Augusta pediatrician, said Hood’s explanation that Kendall was accident-prone doesn’t add up.

“All 4-year-olds are clumsy,” he said. “The injuries described (by police) were much more serious.”

But Meister also said he doesn’t know anything about the girl’s medical history.

Hood said he and Gatto never learned the extent of Kendall’s delays, either. Her mother disappeared and the state Department of Health and Human Services wouldn’t share any records.

“We never received any of her medical records and (DHHS) closed the case,” he said. “Shawna tried to contact the social worker involved and never had any luck getting answers about anything concerning Kendall.”

It’s not clear where Kendall lived with her mother prior to being removed by DHHS. It’s also not clear how often DHHS checked in on Kendall after she was placed with Hood and Gatto.

That’s something Erica Sherman, the Wiscasset mother who organized the vigil for Kendall, thinks about. Was DHHS involved?

At least one person suspected abuse.

Bonnie Lane, who works at the Family Dollar on Route 1 in Wiscasset, said Gatto would sometimes bring Kendall in. Lane remembers her smile and that she loved Minnie Mouse but also suspected that she might be the victim of abuse.

Lane told reporters at the vigil for Kendall that she tried contacting DHHS about that abuse but was not able to provide enough information to trigger a response.

It doesn’t appear many others in Wiscasset knew the family well. Kendall wasn’t in preschool. They weren’t regulars at the local library.

Even if DHHS was supposed to monitor Kendall’s well-being regularly, that doesn’t mean it happened.

Meister said the dramatic rise in the number of drug-affected children has led to more work for state child protection workers. He said they are overworked. He also said because the state prefers to place children with kin, even if those people are not trained or certified as foster parents, the results are not always ideal.

“The question is always: Are the children in a safe place?” Meister said.

Hood said his home was safe. Neither of the other children who were in the home, Gatto’s grandchildren, had any injuries. Police confirmed that.

Hood said Kendall was loved.

The week after she died, while his fiancée was in jail, he left his house to attend the vigil in Kendall’s honor. Sherman said she saw him there.

He stood off to the side with a hood pulled over his head, his head bowed.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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Twitter: PPHEricRussell