In the more than three years that Howard County day care provider Kathleen A. Butcher has been in prison after being convicted of killing a 15-month-old girl in her care, her husband and five children have struggled to lead a normal family life without her.
Duke Butcher, 46, attempts to juggle his job along with responsibilities that his wife used to manage in their North Laurel home. He has little time to relax after getting the kids off to school in the morning, helping them with their homework, making dinner and then doing household chores on the weekend.
As the family awaits Kathleen Butcher's return from a 10-year sentence, they depend on a core group of relatives and friends who keep the family together by doing small tasks -- making the children's school lunches, providing them with school uniforms and supplies, taking them to get their photos taken for the holidays and raising money for legal expenses.
"Without the volunteers, I might have gone crazy," said Duke Butcher, a management analyst in the administrative office of the federal judiciary. "They help out a lot."
At the height of the trial in 2001, the Butcher family garnered fierce support from people proclaiming Kathleen Butcher's innocence, and it hardly has wavered. Supporters formed the Coalition to Bring Kathy Home to focus on the needs of Duke Butcher and the children -- Matthew, 12; Nicole, 10; Jenna, 8; Brandon, 4; and Danielle, 3 -- while also keeping track of case updates, organizing fund-raisers and selling Bring Kathy Home T-shirts.
Butcher's family and friends have put their hopes in her new attorneys, who challenged the conviction by filing for post-conviction relief in April, claiming ineffective counsel. Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney has not ruled on the matter.
In the meantime, the family tries to adjust without Butcher, 41, who had a parole hearing in September and was denied. They see her twice a week for hourly visits at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup; only three of the children are allowed at a time in the prison.
"Every day, every minute, [the children are] asking when she will come home and what they can do and maybe they can do some fund raising to get Mommy home," Duke Butcher said. "They don't understand the concept."
Mynga Kleck, Duke Butcher's sister who lives nearby, has been the primary caregiver of Danielle, who was born after Butcher was incarcerated. The girl stays with Kleck at her Laurel home during the week and spends weekends with her father and siblings at their 2,300-square-foot single-family home.
Danielle spends so much time with Kleck that she calls her "Mommy."
"I correct her all the time, and I give it up, she calls me Mommy," Kleck said. "She recognizes Kathy, too, and calls her Mommy."
Kleck also acts as an on-call aide to her brother, sometimes having to leave her husband and 15-year-old son at a moment's notice to help him make dinner.
"Yesterday he called me up, with the frozen dinner, and said, 'How do you do this?'" Kleck said recently. "He said, 'Can you come here in five minutes and show me how to do this?' "
Besides Kleck, support comes primarily from the family's church, St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel, and its school, which the older children attend. One of the teachers makes the children's lunches each day, while church members ensure that the children will receive Christmas gifts and Easter baskets.
In August, Val Makarsky, a receptionist at the school, coordinated a fund-raiser that attracted more than 100 people and raised nearly $4,000. She plans to have a basket bingo as another fund-raiser this winter.
"Kathy was judged by a jury of her peers and found guilty and she's serving her time, and that does not stop me from helping. This is what I'm called to do," Makarsky said. "I'm here to help the children and her husband. They have done nothing wrong."
In the fall, Rita Aulebach took the children to J.C. Penney to have their pictures taken for Christmas cards, and each year she also has professional photos taken of the children who are not yet in school.
"It's a family in need right now," said Aulebach, a member of the church. "There's five children who all belong to the same parish who are without a mother. I think everyone is just pitching in somehow, some way."
Carol Frazier, a kindergarten substitute teacher at the school, ensures that the three older children are outfitted with school uniforms and have supplies, and she also passes down clothing from her children to the Butchers. She visits Butcher in jail every few months, updating her about the children's schooling.
"Kathy is still one of my best friends, and I knew she would do the same for me if I was in that situation," she said.
In 2001, Butcher was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after Alexa Shearer, a girl she was caring for in her home-based day care on Sewall Avenue, stopped breathing Nov. 16, 1999.
The girl was taken off life support two days later, and a medical examiner determined that she died of blunt-force trauma to the head by shaking and impact.
Cause of death debated
Butcher's new lawyers are now arguing that if her trial lawyers had secured necessary experts, they would have shown that the girl died as the result of an infection and not because of blunt force trauma. They claim that she was suffering from cardiac arrest, triggered by diabetes and an inflammation of the pancreas.
The state has argued that the defense presented a medical expert that concluded the girl was "suffering from an infection until proven otherwise," and that the testimony by defense witnesses was "nothing less than competent," according to court papers.
Prosecutor Danielle Duclaux, who tried the case, said the Shearers also are struggling daily with the pain of Alexa's death.
"The Shearers, as does the state, believe in the guilt of Kathy Butcher," she said. "And they know she's going to get out one day, and I think it's going to be a very painful time for them."
Whenever Butcher does return home, her supporters vow to continue to help her family.
"The support will not end once she is out of prison. I'm sure they're going to need a lot of help getting grounded, so she can enter back into society," Makarsky said. "We'll be there for her and her family."