They came from different corners of the world, all horrified by the story of a 12-year-old boy who had died alone in his Lebanon County bedroom.
Francesca Menday read about Maxwell Schollenberger in New Zealand. Michael Frankowski is a retired state worker, following the boy’s story from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Kaitlyn Kelly and Elizabeth Young both learned of Max through a story circulating on Facebook; Kelly is a surgical oncologist, Young is a stay-at-home mom.
They don’t know each other, but they know of Max.
“This child was imprisoned and tortured for years,” said Frankowski, 69. “You and I and other folks can think back over what we’ve been doing for the last several years, and, you know, realize that we’ve been … going about our lives, and all that time, this poor child has been held captive and tortured, mentally and physically. … It’s just so hard to fathom, to comprehend.”
The details of Max’s life and death may never be fully known, but what is alleged from detectives and the county prosecutor are years of isolation and neglect by his father and pseudo-stepmother. Max was locked in his second-floor bedroom and allegedly fed table scraps from his half-siblings. He died in May of blunt force trauma to the head, aggravated by starvation.
Within days after Max’s caregivers were arrested, Facebook pages opened up in his name, and a group of people from around the country began to form around the idea of finding justice for his death. They have already involved a marketing firm as well as local legislator, Frank Ryan.
It’s not a surprising reaction for one renowned criminologist.
“From a societal aspect, when something like this happens, it sends the signal that things are chaotic. This is not normal,” said Scott Bonn, a professor of criminology, media expert and analyst, public speaker and author. “There’s a need to put the pieces back into place. It seems incomprehensible to us that a man and woman could do this to a child. We need to make sense of it.”
Anger didn’t help
When Elizabeth Young saw the news story of Max’s death with the mugshots of the two defendants, Scott Schollenberger and Kimberly Maurer, she wanted to see a photo of Max. She searched on Facebook for his dad and saw a profile photo that Schollenberger had posted with one comment from a woman named Kim.
Like many others, she knew she’d found the people charged with Max’s death, and she scrolled through the comments.
“A lot of people wanted to leave their nasty comments. There was a lot of anger, and I’m not saying I don’t understand. I also went and left a nasty comment, and that’s when I thought, I don’t feel any better,” said Young, the mother of two toddlers in Fresno, California.
She created the Facebook page We Remember Max, which now has 2,200 members, with this statement: “I saw alot of people on Kim’s page who needed a place to talk about all this. There were alot of angry comments, with very little engagement, and even less information being exchanged. Every single person there was outraged for Max. MAX IS IN OUR HEARTS, and the WORLD IS LISTENING!”
Taking a stand
Kaitlyn Kelly doesn’t know Pennsylvania criminal law or legislation about child abuse, but she threw herself into studying them.
From her home in California, Kelly wrote an opinion piece for the Lebanon Daily News, asking why torture wasn’t included in the charges against Schollenberger and Maurer. She’s a surgical oncologist from San Diego, the mother of two children and pregnant with her third.
Max’s story shook her, in part, because of the patients she treats.
“These people have these terrible diseases that they have no way to fight,” she said. “Here he was, a healthy boy with no way to fight too.”
Kelly studied the case of 3-year-old Scott McMillan, who died in 2014 in Chester County after repeated beatings and torture. His mother and her boyfriend were arrested and eventually found guilty in his death. The list of charges against him was much longer than the charges against Schollenberger and Maurer.
“We don’t want to interfere. We want to let the D.A. do her job,” Kelly said. “We’re hoping to get what we consider some justice for him (Max). And if the laws weren’t able to capture what was done to him, what can we do to change that?”
State Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon, is already at work with the #JusticeForMaxwell legal committee, a group that Kelly joined. It was formed shortly after the defendants’ arrests in September.
They are in the initial stages of the process but considering different ideas, for example, legislation that might track a child through his or her Social Security number. When a parent claims a dependent with the IRS, the schools could be informed of the address and name of that child as a cross-check, Ryan said. Max never attended school. Ryan is also looking at how grandparents might be given better access to custodial rights.
“I’m committed to seeing this legislation through. I want to close these holes. I’m starting to see this problem is even bigger than Max,” Ryan said. “We’re not gonna let you down on this one. We’re not gonna let down Max.”
Max’s mom:‘I thought Maxwell was in good hands’
‘We think of our own children’
The interest from strangers in helping and wanting to discuss Max doesn’t surprise Scott Bonn.
He’s a criminologist who says the emergence of people around a horrific crime, especially a child, is about the need for a conclusion, closure, an ending. In the chaotic world we live in, we want terrible problems to be resolved.
“You can say these people are disturbed. Ultimately, we’re never really going to complete comprehend why they would torment and torture a child like this,” said Bonn. “We think of our own children in a situation like that.”
Francesca Menday in Auckland, New Zealand, read about Max through local and social media. A forensic psychiatrist, she called Max’s case “traumatizing” in email correspondence.
“Though far away from N.Z., he is still a child who was tortured for many years in a horrific manner,” she said. “In the 25 years I have worked in forensics, I have not come across a case like this one. Obviously, there are a lot of child violent- and sexual-abuse cases, which all leave an impact on you, and you wish severe penalties to the perpetrators of such unthinkable crimes.”
Michael Frankowski from Camp Hill isn’t quite sure how to help but has offered it to the legal committee.
He’s the father of two grown sons and three grandchildren and wants to see justice done. He watches the case, hoping that punishment will be delivered and legislation might change to help other children like Max.
He said, “Nothing will bring Max back, so if any of us could, that would be the number one priority.”
Kim Strong can be reached at email@example.com.