Community remembers ‘Baby Elena’ on her 2nd birthday

Published 3:59 pm Monday, February 26, 2024

By Jay Compton

February 20 would have been Elena Hembree’s 2nd birthday. Several groups came together last Friday to hold a celebration of her life at Lincoln Park in Middlesboro. They are advocating for justice in the case as well as for changes to Kentucky’s child abuse laws while keeping her memory alive.

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Elena died last July and investigators said she has been sexually assaulted as well. So far her mother, Erica Lawson, is the only person arrested in the case. Lawson has been charged with murder and the Commonwealth’s attorney is seeking the death penalty. They have accused Lawson of abuse and not helping the child when she was unable to breathe.

At a pretrial hearing in January, Lawson’s attorneys filed a motion to remove the death penalty. To this point test results have not revealed male DNA in the sexual assault collection kit used on Elena, but prosecutors have said more results from that testing are forthcoming.

Friday’s event was organized by Crystal Hoskins and her group “Be Elena’s Voice.”

“The purpose of ‘Be Elena’s Voice’ is not just talk about what happened to her but to honor the life that she lived,” Hoskins said. “We want to honor her on her birthdays, on her memorial, do events that tell more about her life. We do want justice for Elena, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like if we’re not her voice nobody will be.”

Banners were hung around Lincoln Park, the Middlesboro Fire Department and Police Department were on hand to show their support. Poems remembering Elena were read aloud, there were guest speakers, a group prayer and a balloon release.

Middlesboro Mayor Boone Bowling had declared Feb. 20 as Elena Roseleigh Hembree Day in the city. That proclamation was read by Justin Howard during Friday’s event.

“Whereas, it is with heavy hearts that we still mourn the passing of Elena Roseleigh Hembree, a beloved child in our community; and

Whereas, Elena Roseleigh Hembree’s sweet spirit has left an indelible mark on all who knew her;

Now, therefore, I, on behalf of the City of Middlesboro, do hereby proclaim February 20th, 2024, as Elena Roseleigh Hembree Day.

May this day serve as a reminder of her enduring legacy, her kindness, and her profound impact on our city. Let us honor her memory by striving to make our community a better place for all,” states the proclamation.

Other groups including Elena’s Angels, Elena’s Helping Hands, and Justice for Elena were involved in putting together Friday’s event.

“I think it’s awesome when a community comes out and rallies around a child that they didn’t know personally,” Hoskins said. “For me, when I heard about her story the questions were: How? Why? I think everybody wants those answers but we also want to honor who she was in the process. We realized that none of us are going to be putting handcuffs on people, but we can be a voice for her.”

Hoskins shared that she had learned from speaking with family members that Elena liked pancakes and that her favorite game was peek-a-boo.

“So many times we hear about cases like this and we get desensitized. This was a baby, she was 17 months old and her life did matter,” she said.

Howard added that Hailey Lawless was in attendance. Lawless started a petition that now has thousands of signatures in support of Elena’s Law, which calls for harsher penalties for child abusers. He called on State Rep. Adam Bowling to take Elena’s Law to the capitol and push have it approved by the Legislature.

He also asked for continued prayers and support for Elena’s family.

“I believe in my heart of hearts that justice will be coming soon. From the mouth of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, some DNA has come back that is on the record and more is being processed,” Howard said. “Arrests will come soon and I can’t wait for that day because Elena deserves it. She deserves for those guys to receive punishment.”

Lawson’s next court appearance will be March 20 for a pretrial hearing in Bell County Circuit Court.

In the meantime, Hoskins said she and others will continue to remember Elena as they push for child abuse awareness.

“Moving forward we want to bring awareness to child neglect and abuse — Try to turn a tragedy into something that can help other children along the way,” she said.