Photo: (l-r) Marvin Denver Plett and Lena Plett; (Below) Ayana Bennett (Moody), deceased
by Kristen Ku
SPANISH LOOKOUT, Cayo District, Wed. Nov. 22, 2023
In a case that has shocked Belize and sparked a national conversation about child protection, Marvin Denver Plett, 43, and Lena Plett, 39, from the Spanish Lookout community in the Cayo District, have been charged with manslaughter in connection with the tragic death of four-year-old Ayana Bennett (Moody), a foster child who had been placed in their care.
Little Ayana Bennett, known as Ayana Moody, and her 2-year-old sister had reportedly been placed in the custody of the Department of Human Services in August and had been taken into the Plett home on September 7 of this year, but she was reportedly found dead by her foster mother at about 3:30 a.m. on Friday, November 17. An examination of the injuries to her bruised body triggered a serious police inquiry into the possibility that her death was the result of child abuse.
On Tuesday, November 21, police informed reporters that a post-mortem examination of the child’s body, which had been done at the Belize Medical College, had revealed that her death was the result of blunt force trauma. “The pathologist today conducted a postmortem examination on the body of the child and certified that she died from multiple trauma, which would indicate that she was beaten severely. And that beating was what caused her death,” noted Commissioner of Police, Chester Williams.
Both of the child’s foster parents had admitted to having physically disciplined the child with a belt during a homeschooling lesson they were having. Their admission, along with other evidence, had been placed in a file that was forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), so that she could decide what charges could or would be brought against the couple.
“The result of that has been forwarded to the DPP, and we will now await further instructions from her as it relates to any possible further charges. I don’t know if a belt would cause that amount of force, as the doctor had prescribed, following the postmortem examination,” Williams had explained.
Williams made reference to Section 38 of the Criminal Code of Belize’s Constitution, which permits parents to chastise their kids, but prohibits any type of excessive physical punishment. He further noted that, in this particular case, the child’s foster parents could be held accountable for any brutal beating that might have caused her death. “It might not be a charge of murder, but at the very least, manslaughter,” Williams had said.
In a San Ignacio court on Tuesday, the couple was initially charged with aggravated assault—a charge which has now been upgraded, as mentioned earlier, to manslaughter.
On November 19, the chairman of the Spanish Lookout community, Harry Letkeman, released a statement affirming the community’s commitment to Christian values and the protection of all children, and expressing deep condolences for the unexplained loss.
“Our hearts are collectively broken, and we express our sadness at her passing and share in the grief of her biological parents and family. For us, it is part of our Christian duty to care for and protect the most vulnerable of our Belize society,” stated the release.
The statement described the collective grief and shock permeating Spanish Lookout and noted, “As a community, we look to the authorities to continue its investigation and establish the cause of Ayana’s sudden death. We pledge our full support to the investigation process.”
Letkeman, during an interview, remarked, “Most parents in Spanish Lookout are very good parents, you know, raising their children well, and I had never heard of anybody losing a child just in their sleep. Then we were made to understand that perhaps there had been some marks on her body, and then everybody’s hearts just sank. I think we all feel very deeply saddened, and I would like to take the opportunity to apologize to her mother and the country for this. It should never happen, you know, when a child is placed in the care of adults and the child is completely innocent, it cannot defend itself, so it’s completely at the mercy of the adults around it.”
However, Letkeman had indicated he had not expected any punitive action to be taken against the foster parents, whom he describes as a well-respected and honest family in the community. Instead, he said that he hoped that one day the family will be able to tell their side of the story.
Notably, the child, who reportedly lived in a Southside neighborhood in Belize City, had been placed in the foster home as part of a short-term arrangement by the Department of Human Services, which was reportedly seeking to provide little Ayana Bennett and her sister with a safer environment. It has been reported that five years ago, the little girl’s older sister, Etana, had been fatally wounded while sleeping in her home by a bullet believed to have been fired by a warring gang member.
Minister of Home Affairs, Hon. Kareem Musa expressed deep sorrow over the incident, while participating in a march to protest the ongoing bombing of Gaza in Palestine by Israel. “We’re out here mourning the death of 6,000 children in Palestine, but we had the loss of a very young, beautiful four-year-old Belizean Ayanna Bennett last night, and the circumstances seem to be one of very serious concern … of course, [we] extend our condolences to the baby’s family,” he said.
Prime Minister Hon. John Briceño also expressed his sorrow and indignation, stating, “My heart broke. How can a human being do something like this to a child?” The Prime Minister went on to call for justice, stating that if it were up to him, the charge would be murder.
In light of questions that have surfaced about the types of decisions which led to the placement of Bennett in the Plett home, the Minister of Human Development, Hon. Dolores Balderamos-García, who refrained from commenting directly about the process, assured the public that the Ministry plans to take appropriate measures in response to what has occurred. “I want to assure the public that our ministry will leave no stone unturned in terms of the types of responses that we have to give. But I must say something to tell you that there was no red flag or concern that we had in terms of the placement of the child,” she stated.