There is a particular lilt to children's laughter in spring. As the sun's warmth coaxes the first carpet of grass, high-pitched squeals of glee becomes a soundtrack for the season. Such is the case on the front lawn of New Plymouth Elementary School where the last bell of the school day ushers in an hour or two of swinging, playing kickball or exploring. One thing missing is Robert Manwill. Since his death in 2009, he has remained a grade-schooler in the collective memory of the general public, but to the people who knew him best—especially his former classmates, now eighth-graders—Robert is ever-present.
"And when they graduate from the middle school this spring, there will be an empty chair for Robert," said Christy Morales, Manwill's second-grade teacher. "His favorite color was green, and I'll have some green pins to hand out to his classmates. In a very real way, Robert will be there."
For New Plymouth artist Katy Belanger, Manwill remains an inspiration and even a motivation.
"Sometimes I'll paint a picture with a child in it. A year ago, I painted something ...." Belanger paused for a moment to search for the right way to describe her art.
"I think that piece was incredible," added fellow artist Pattie Young. "It would have been how Robert might look like today."
Belanger said her painting depicted a boy, somewhere between childhood and young manhood.
"He's a bit older now," Belanger said. "Deep into the background, there are boys looking through a window. Deep into its background, I varnished child abuse awareness images but up front, you see him looking through a window with flowers and birds all around. I don't know; I just painted it."
A few nights later, long after Belanger had tucked her 10-year-old daughter in bed and laid down next to her, her daughter tugged on Belanger's sleeve.
"I think it was two in the morning," Belanger said, "and she leaned over and whispered, 'I think that painting is really nice.'"
Belanger, who grew up in New Plymouth and has been an art instructor at Homedale High School for 20-plus years, has painted multiple pieces inspired by Manwill in the past six years.
"In 2009, I was working on my masters from the University of Idaho and struggling with what I was going to say with my art," she said. "When I first started, I wanted something nice to hang on the wall. I'm a quiet person, but I realized I can reach many more people with my art than I ever could speaking. I like the idea of using art as vocabulary. And then Robert when missing. Everything changed. Social work starting coming through my [art]. I started cutting newspaper articles out regarding Robert. I varnished them onto a canvas and then painted big flowers over the article—the flowers represent children who seem fine, but grow among these complex issues. And if you really look closely, there's always more to what you think you see initially. It's not always pretty."
Belanger paused for another moment, thinking back to 2009.
"I don't know what I needed to do, and I think I was an auto-pilot. These were very large pieces of art, but I was doing one after another," she said. "And then I turned to my U of I professors and they said they liked what I was doing.".
Soon enough, Belanger said she felt the "need to get them out into the community and promote a dialogue." In April 2010, just months after the body of Robert Manwill was discovered in a Boise canal, triggering the arrest of Manwill's mother and her boyfriend, Belanger decided to hold an art auction with dual purposes: to raise money for a scholarship fund and to inspire more conversation about how to better protect our children. The 2010 event realized Belanger's dreams and each year since, including the upcoming Friday, April 24 auction, her idea has grown into a bigger success.
"To some degree, you have this little ghost following you around, whispering 'You need to work on this' and 'Don't forget about this,'" said Belanger, smiling at Young. "So for the next year, I knew we had to reach out to other artists."
Young, a metal artist whose work appears in galleries throughout the Northwest and who has donated some of her previous work to the Discovery Center of Idaho, said that by the time she got a phone call from Belanger, she'd had similar thoughts.
"I had already been hit by many of the same emotions. I had to get involved," Young said. "As the years have gone by, my projects got bigger and just last year, I worked with Robert's classmates—they were in the seventh grade at the time—and we asked the welding class at New Plymouth High School to participate. It's a big sculpture that, today, sits in the New Plymouth City Park."
For this year's memorial event, Young worked with Payette-based artist James Dobney to create a sculpture that stands more than 8-feet tall and which will eventually belong to the winner of a raffle (tickets are $5).
"There are six hand-forged roses on the sculpture: one for every year that Robert has been gone," Young said.
The Boy Who Loved to Hug
"I have a picture of Robert right over here," said Morales, pointing toward her desk in a New Plymouth Elementary classroom. "There are memories of Robert all around the school. There's a photo in the trophy case down the hall, and we have a swing outside with his photo and name on it."
Morales met Manwill the year before she would become his second grade teacher.
"He walked up to me and said, 'My name is Robert Manwill, and I'll be in your class next year.' I remember thinking that he was a real pistol. He just cracked me up," said Morales. "He would come up behind you and give you ambush hugs. He absolutely loved to hug. He was the sweetest boy. I see his little face all the time."
When school let out for the summer of 2009, it would be the last time Morales would see young Manwill. A few weeks later, on July 25, 2009, 8-year-old Robert Manwill was reported missing by his mother Melissa Jenkins, who was living in Boise's Oak Park Village apartment complex near Vista Avenue. A massive manhunt and national media attention followed—Jenkins and her boyfriend, Daniel Ehrlick, regularly appeared on camera, asking for help. Manwill's body was found in the New York Canal near Cloverdale Road on August 3, 2009. Two weeks later, Jenkins and Ehrlick were indicted on murder charges and on September 11, 2011, District Court Judge Darla Williamson, who said she wanted to impose a greater sentence, accepted an agreement to give Jenkins 25 years behind bars without parole. Ehrlick was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Meanwhile, a probe of records revealed that, despite numerous red flags, the State of Idaho had failed Robert Manwill and prompted multiple community conversations about how strong Idaho's safety net is for its most vulnerable citizens.
"Hopefully there isn't a 'next time," and that engagement fades so often, but there was something special about Robert's situation that still holds," said Roger Sherman, executive director of the Idaho Children's Trust Fund.
Sherman sat in the Boise offices of the state's highest profile organization, one designed to "strengthen families to prevent child abuse and neglect," surrounded by scores of federal and state case studies. Among those is the 158-page "Facts, Figures and Trends, 2014-2015," published by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. On page 36 is a series of numbers revealing either a troubling trend in Idaho or reflecting an increased level of reporting on child protection/prevention incidents: There were 2,084 referrals involving the alleged physical abuse of a child in Idaho in fiscal year 2014. That's up from 1,993 in FY 2013 and 1,860 in FY 2012. Additionally, in FY 2014, there were 5,393 referrals involving the alleged neglect of a child in Idaho in FY 2014, up from 5,031 in FY 2013 and 4,676 in FY 2012. "Neglect" includes abandonment, failure to protect or supervise and court-ordered investigations. Overall, there were 12,750 child protection referrals in FY 2014, up from 11,461 in FY 2013 and 11,716 in FY 2012.
"The story of Robert Manwill helps us to personify a situation that is normally described clinically," Sherman said. "With Robert, it's much more personal. It gives us a face."
When Sherman and his advocates talk about Robert Manwill and the broader topic of protecting children, he says it's a unique opportunity to not simply talk about "bad families" and "good families."
"That's critical. When we stigmatize, we say 'Only good families raise good kids.' Well, that's not true. Some bad families may have strength and do some things right, but they need some help," said Sherman. "Instead of asking, 'Isn't this terrible?' why can't we ask, 'How can I help?'"
Strengthening families is what the April 24 New Plymouth art auction and raffle in New Plymouth is all about.
"To date, we've raised $20,000 and we'll continue raising funds until 2019," said Morales, adding 2019 is the year Manwill would have graduated high school. "We're building a scholarship fund for his classmates, and when I go over to the middle school, when I see those kids, those same kids I had in second grade with Robert, I think to myself, 'That would be him.'"