A community gathers to mourn and be comforted

September 15, 2014

[Diocese of Central Pennsylvania]  We gathered here today to celebrate the life of a child we never knew, a child whose face we cannot even see. Jarrod Tutko, Jr. came into our lives too late for him, but not too late for us, not too late for his life to have an impact, I hope, on our lives and the lives of countless children and parents,” said the Rev. Canon Kate Harrigan, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

About 100 people from the neighborhood of Green Street in Harrisburg, as well as church members gathered on Sept. 13 for a memorial service for 9-year-old Jarrod Tutko, Jr. who died in July in his home from neglect, starvation and dehydration.

Jarrod, who suffered from Fragile X Syndrome, a rare form of autism, was kept in his third floor bedroom by his parents for about four years before his death. His mother and other siblings had little contact with him, because of his severe behavioral problems and because his mother was caring for another child with complex health problems. When Jarrod’s father, who was responsible for his care, brought him downstairs to his mother on Aug.1  he admitted that Jarrod had been dead for four days and that he had not been up to see Jarrod for the two days before he found him dead. His mother called 911, and when police arrived they found the house, and especially Jarrod’s room, in deplorable condition. The father, Jarrod Tutko, Sr. was arrested and the other children were placed in foster care, according to news reports.

Last week, the Dauphin County Coroner announced that they had cremated Jarrod’s body, because no one from the family had come to claim him. He had not been able to contact Jarrod’s mother and so their policy required that he be cremated and buried in the local county “Potter’s Field.” That announcement rallied several groups in the community to do something for Jarrod in death that they couldn’t do in life. One group donated a burial site. Another the cost of a private funeral, which will take place at a later date. A fundraiser was launched to purchase a headstone. And Harrigan, as the rector of the Episcopal church in Jarrod’s neighborhood, stepped forward to offer the memorial service as an opportunity for the community to grieve and heal.

Most of those attending the service did not know Jarrod, as he never went outside of the home he lived in with his parents and two siblings, only a few blocks from St. Paul’s Church. “I realized that in a house, only a couple of blocks from here, only a couple of blocks from where we gather to worship week after week, a child was dying, a child had died,” said Harrigan in her homily. “Like all of us I was horrified. I was horrified in so many ways. His was a house I had driven by more times than I wanted to think about. And I knew nothing. I have looked around this neighborhood since then and wondered about the families who live in each house, praying for their safety, praying for each person in this neighborhood.”

Harrigan challenged those in attendance to get to know their neighbors. To be willing to knock on their neighbor’s door and introduce themselves. “Jarrod may have been forgotten in life but I encourage us not to let him be forgotten in death. I would like to challenge us to let his name be a reminder that all of our lives are interwoven. I would like to challenge us to let his name be a reminder that there are children and parents who need help and hope. “

The altar was set with white balloons, a white rose and a burning candle. The balloons will deflate, the rose will drop its petals and the candle will be extinguished, but the community will honor the memory of young Jarrod as they heal from their grief and move forward to touch the lives of so many children who need love and care.

– Linda Arguedas canon for communications in the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania.