Fatal flaws – Part 1 of 4: Inside the last year of Brielle Gage’s life

  • FILE - In this Monday Jan. 5, 2015 file photo, Katlyn Marin appears during a video arraignment in the Nashua District Court from the Department of Corrections jail in Manchester, N.H. Marin is accused of beating her 3-year-old daughter to death in 2014. Her trial begins Monday Aug. 15, 2016. (Don Himsel/The Telegraph via AP, Pool/File) Don Himsel

  • Katlyn Marin, of Nashua, was arrested Saturday on second-degree murder charges.Marin

  • ABOVE: A tearful Katelyn Marin says goodbye to her father, Harry, after her sentencing. Marin is currently serving a sentence of 45 years to life. She is appealing her second-degree murder conviction. Don Himsel / The Telegraph

  • Katlyn Marin speaks to her attorney Justin Shepherd during her sentencing. Marin received a minimum of 45 years to life in prison for second-degree murder charges after she beat her three-year-old daughter to death in 2014. Caitlin Andrews

  • Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin speaks after Katlyn Marin, mother of killed Nashua child Brielle Gage, was sentenced to 45 year to life in prison on Friday. Caitlin Andrews

  • Nashua Telegraph Staff photo by Don Himsel A tearful Katlyn Marin says goodbye to her father Harry after she was sentenced on December 2, 2016 to a minimum of 45 years in State Prison for causing the death of her 3-year-old daughter in 2014. Don Himsel—Nashua Telegraph

  • Nashua Telegraph photo by Don Himsel Katlyn Marin arrives for her sentencing in a Nashua courtroom in December of 2016. Don Himsel—Nashua Telegraph

  • Brielle Gage

  • The bench in Livingston Park in Manchester dedicated to Brielle Gage near the swimming pool. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The bench in Livingston Park in Manchester dedicated to Brielle Gage near the swimming pool. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • LEFT: A bench near the swimming pool in Livingston Park in Manchester is dedicated to Brielle Gage. It reads, “In Memory of Brielle Eternity Gage, Beloved Granddaughter, Niece, Sister and Daddy’s Girl.” GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The bench in Livingston Park in Manchester dedicated to Brielle Gage near the swimming pool. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/8/2017 10:03:38 PM

The 911 call came in just past 11:30 a.m. Nashua police sped to a beige house on Oak Street and found 3-year-old Brielle Gage lying unconscious, face-up on the bathroom floor, her skin gray and her blue eyes half open. Brielle’s 4-year-old brother watched as a police officer began performing chest compressions on her limp, bruised body.

When paramedics arrived minutes later, they quickly put a respirator to Brielle’s mouth, wrapped her in a blanket and carried her to an ambulance. She arrived at the emergency room in cardiac arrest, her head deformed from injury, her hands bruised and swollen and her knees scraped.

Brielle was declared dead minutes before noon, two days before Thanksgiving 2014.

An autopsy would later reveal Brielle was beaten so badly she suffered eight fractured ribs, bruises all over her small body and bleeding in her brain. Her injuries came at the hands of her mother, Katlyn Marin.

Details about the months before Brielle’s death reveal an agency in crisis – plagued by crushing caseloads, high staff turnover and a lack of thorough investigations that left children in abusive homes. Records show Brielle is one of at least eight children since 2011 who had been involved with Division of Children, Youth and Families before death. 

State child protection was warned of abuse in the Nashua home for more than a year. Despite red flags, the Division for Children, Youth and Families missed multiple opportunities to keep Brielle safe, according to interviews and a Monitor review of court, police and DCYF records.

Death under DCYF watch

Brielle’s slow fatal demise is well documented in records written by the officials entrusted to help her.

In the year before Brielle died, DCYF received at least five reports of abuse and neglect against the toddler or her four brothers, who ranged in age from nine months to 8 years old.

All five children were removed from Marin’s care in April 2014 when she came under police investigation for beating her oldest son with a black, studded belt. By June, DCYF returned the children to Marin with little explanation – while she still faced felony charges for the belt beating.

In a highly unusual move, police and prosecutors took it upon themselves to check in on the children throughout the summer to make sure they were safe after the child protection case was dismissed.

DCYF got another report of suspected abuse in September after Brielle’s leg was broken and her brother was found to be bruised, but the kids remained with their mother. No child protection workers checked in on Brielle and her brothers for two months, police records show. On Nov. 25, 2014, the agency got word Brielle was dead.

Her death under DCYF’s watch touched off public outcry and calls for agency reform from state leaders. But, nearly three years later, the agency is without a permanent leader and substantial change has yet to come. While an outside review looked into whether the agency effectively protects children from harm – it didn’t specifically review Brielle’s case.

Top officials at DCYF have said little about the agency’s involvement with her family and have never admitted any wrongdoing.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers declined to comment on specifics of Brielle’s death, citing the ongoing criminal case against Marin, who is now appealing her second-degree murder conviction.

Beaten ‘2,000 times’

Six months before her death, Brielle flourished away from her mother’s home. A judge agreed on April 2, 2014, to remove the toddler and her four brothers from Marin’s care after a doctor took a closer look at the bruises.

The children quickly settled into the safety of their foster mom’s home in Goffstown, a 25-mile drive from Nashua. They played in the yard with her dogs. Brielle, a shy 3-year-old with thin blond hair and a lopsided smile, started talking more, telling social workers about her new toys.

“She doesn’t hit,” Marin’s 8-year-old son told DCYF and the police about his foster mother. “She doesn’t yell and uses a nice voice.”

At their mom’s house, punishment came in the form of a belt beating from Marin or her boyfriend, Michael Rivera, the children told child protection workers.

Marin’s 6-year-old once got hit for sneaking into the kitchen and stealing a cheese stick he hid under the couch because he was hungry, he said. His mother and Rivera hit him with their belts “2,000 times” on his back and bottom, sometimes leaving rashes, he told investigators.

A buzzer on the door of Marin’s oldest son’s bedroom alerted his mother when he might be roaming the house. Sometimes, Rivera forced the 8-year-old to kneel in the corner for up to an hour, he said. The boy struggled to speak about his mother, stuttering uncontrollably when asked about what happened when she gets mad.

Katlyn Marin was just 15 years old and a student at Manchester Memorial High School when she became pregnant with her first child. It was on purpose, her mother Kathleene Emery said, though she doesn’t understand why. Katlyn “said she wanted someone to love,” Emery said. “It was bad from then on.”

Marin, 5-foot-2 with stringy auburn hair and thin-framed glasses, had always wanted a girl. Soon after Brielle was born in January 2011, Marin got her daughter’s ears pierced with gold studs and painted her tiny fingernails pink. But Brielle, who had developmental delays and food allergies, quickly became a target of Marin’s frustration, family members said.

When Marin lost her job at Dunkin’ Donuts, she blamed Brielle for constantly getting rashes or fevers at daycare, Emery told police. Marin rarely snuggled Brielle, instead calling her stupid or hitting her head in front of family members, according to police. When Marin’s sister, Christina Dean, stopped by the house once and asked Brielle why she had a black eye, the toddler slouched over silently, Dean told police. Later, Brielle climbed into her lap and hugged her close, as Marin complained loudly that the toddler ate her own hair.

By 2014 – at age 25 – Marin had five children by four different men. Family members told police it was her oldest son and Brielle who got it the worst.

Missed deadline

By the time Brielle turned three, DCYF was familiar with Marin. Councilors and school administrators reported “sexualized behavior” among the children and bruising on the oldest boy in January, February and March 2014. DCYF investigated, but closed all three cases without any action against Marin.

In April, the agency got a report it couldn’t ignore.

At school on April 2, Marin’s oldest son pulled his long sleeves down around his wrists, but the guidance counselor had already seen the bruises speckling his forearms and left ear. After DCYF and the police arrived, the boy hesitated to lift his shirt when asked, but eventually did, revealing more bruises on his waist, upper chest, back and hip.

Checking on Marin’s younger children that afternoon, an officer and child protection worker noticed bruises on Brielle’s normally pink cheeks, an injury Marin dismissed, saying she was “born that way.”

While Marin called her oldest son’s injuries the result of roughhousing, a doctor disagreed, labeling them suspicious. That’s when the Nashua police and DCYF took action, filing an emergency court petition to remove all five children from Marin and get them into the foster home. Police started a criminal investigation, while DCYF evaluated whether the home was safe for Brielle and her brothers.

A month later, family members were shocked when Marin emerged from a closed-door DCYF hearing on May 5 with news that she would be getting her children back.

“She said she got the kids back and she just walked away,” Emery, who hadn’t been allowed inside, told the Nashua Telegraph.

It’s impossible to know exactly what happened in the closed-door hearing between DCYF, the judge and Marin. Child abuse and neglect proceedings are confidential and the records are sealed.

But according to a former DCYF worker with knowledge of the situation, one reason the children were returned was purely procedural – DCYF missed a court deadline. A staff attorney had been out of the office the day required paperwork was due and no one from the office delivered the documents, according to Ashley Rossiter, who was fired by DCYF last year and is now suing for employment discrimination.

“Something so stupid sends them back to that situation. It’s devastating,” Rossiter said.

‘DCYF screwed uptheir case’

News of the children’s release alarmed Nashua police and set in motion several frantic hours on May 5 trying to keep them safe.

Worried Brielle and her brothers were going home, Detective Nicole Brooks immediately drafted a warrant for Marin’s arrest, charging her with felony assault for beating her oldest son.

Brooks had been preparing to file charges later that week, but instead went to a judge’s office to get sign-off that day. Armed with an arrest warrant, she drove to Marin’s house and when she discovered it empty, alerted nearby departments and told the children’s foster mother not to release them, police records show.

“Our opinion hadn’t changed about the kids safety being at risk being in that home,” Nashua police Lt. Kerry Baxter said later.

Goffstown police arrested Marin as she drove through town on her way to retrieve her children from foster care. Marin’s bail conditions prohibited her from any contact with her children, which kept Brielle and her brothers in foster care – at least for the time being.

By mid-June, with the felony charges still looming, the DCYF neglect case against Marin was inexplicably dismissed. Since the court records are sealed, the decisions made that day are shielded from public view. Brielle and her brothers went home to Marin.

With DCYF now out of the picture, on June 24, a different judge overseeing the criminal case against Marin took an unusual step, giving the police permission to visit Marin’s home to check on the welfare of Brielle and her siblings.

“I have been here 18 years and I have never had a case where a judge has put in an order for law enforcement to go check on children,” Baxter said. Within 24 hours of the order, the police were knocking on Marin’s door.

Prosecutor Cassie Devine knew she had a weak case against the Nashua mother. But she kept it alive by indicting Marin and Rivera that summer, so the Nashua police could keep checking on the children, she said.

“The only reason I indicted her was because DCYF screwed up their case, the kids were taken away and they were put back,” said Devine, with the Hillsborough County Attorney's Office. “I needed to put some kind of protection in place so the police could check in.”

Brielle’s paternal grandmother, Sharon Boucher, cried when she learned Brielle was returning to Marin’s home.

Her son, William Boucher, had only met his daughter a few times, before Marin cut off contact and he went back to jail. Still, Sharon had requested to take custody of Brielle when she saw news reports of Marin’s arrest. A DCYF worker visited Sharon’s two-bedroom Manchester apartment and had recommended Brielle be placed in her care, she said. It fell apart when the family court case was dismissed.

“I was so upset,” Sharon recalled. “I knew something bad was going to happen to the kids.”

The final report

Under the court order, the Nashua police could show up at Marin’s house, but couldn’t go inside or talk to the children unless Marin gave permission. She rarely did.

Throughout the summer, officers spent most of their time standing on the small wooden stoop, peeking past Marin to check out the kids as she blocked the open front door.

Over at least three visits, officers documented Marin’s children with marks, bruises and welts. On July 1, a large bruise spread across Brielle’s cheek and forehead. Marin had explanations – the children fought, she said, sometimes they fell, or it was just an accident.

School was back in session less than a full week before DCYF was called in to investigate on Sept. 2. Marin’s oldest son had arrived to Fairgrounds Elementary School again with bruises on his arms and face. School employees saw Brielle wearing a cast on her leg.

DCYF assigned a new caseworker to investigate, the third in less than a year.

This time, the kids were less willing to talk. At school, the oldest boy refused to sit down at a table with the new investigator and police for an interview. Circular bruises dotted his jaw line, a raised black and blue lump stretched down his forearm and a dark circular mark covered his ear. The injuries came from “playing ninja” with his brothers, he told them, answering their questions standing in the doorway.

The boy’s younger brother stuffed his fingers in his ears when he saw the police and DCYF at school. “I’m not talking to you because last time I did you took me from my mom!” he said.

At her house, Marin refused to let DCYF and police officers inside. Her 4-year-old son kicked and swore at the officer from the doorway. Brielle sat at the bottom of the stairs in the living room, wearing a pink cast on her fractured left shin. Marin became infuriated by questions about her conflicting accounts of what happened to Brielle’s leg, police noted. DCYF decided against any court action that day.

A week later, Marin’s oldest sons missed school two days in a row. When police showed up to Marin’s apartment on Sept. 9 to check in, they noticed a fresh bruise extending from the oldest boy’s left eye to the back of his head.

At DCYF, workers and supervisors debated what to do next. At first, the agency prepared an affidavit to go to court, either for removal or to provide in-home services, records show.

“I finally have the go ahead to file!!” a child protection worker wrote in an email to Nashua police on Sept. 10.

But by mid-September, the agency backtracked. DCYF supervisors and attorneys decided there wasn’t enough to move forward with any action against Marin, police records show.

Brielle and her brothers stayed put.

Two weeks later, on Sept. 24, Nashua police made their last welfare check at Marin’s apartment, where blankets and sheets now hung in every window. Marin swore and yelled at the officers and DCYF caseworker, who afterward said she felt more comfortable checking in on the children without Nashua police, in the hopes Marin would cooperate, police records show.

But no state child protection worker ever showed up at Marin’s door again, according to police records. DCYF had scheduled its next visit for early December, prior to closing out its investigation, records show.

December was too late for Brielle.

One night during the week of Thanksgiving 2014, Marin got angry Brielle had wet herself and had gone in search of food, prosecutors said. Marin beat her twice, first throwing Brielle into a wall, then later punching her and eventually slamming her head into the floor over and over before going back to sleep, a state prosecutor said.

Marin was convicted of second-degree murder last year and has started serving her 45-year prison sentence. The assault charges against Marin and Rivera were dropped after Brielle’s death because her son was too scared to testify, Devine said.

DCYF won’t say whether it has, or plans to, review its role in Brielle’s case. Agency records show DCYF did eventually substantiate the September accusations of physical abuse against Brielle, despite the agency’s lack of action. But DCYF won’t say when that finding occurred – before or after the girl’s murder.

Brielle’s family members have found little peace. The little girl’s final resting place is unknown. Marin won custody of Brielle’s remains and hasn’t revealed their location to Emery or others, they said. Brielle’s siblings sometimes visit a memorial bench Boucher had installed in Manchester on a shaded hill beside the outdoor swimming pool at Livingston Park.

The four brothers have now been split up among two homes, but their memories remain. At Marin’s sentencing, a state prosecutor read a letter from one of her sons.

“I miss Brielle’s face, pretty smile and playing. It’s still hard to talk about what happened and I still feel sad,” the son wrote. “Do you care about how you hurt us?”

Fatal flaws – Part 1 of 4: Inside the last year of Brielle Gage’s life
Fatal flaws – Part 2 of 4: Tracking N.H. child deaths linked to abuse or neglect
Fatal flaws – Part 3 of 4: DCYF faces staff shortage, heavy caseloads

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.) 

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