Responding to the death of Ethan Henderson, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee held a hearing Wednesday to discuss how the state Office of Child and Family Services responds to abuse complaints and why few details have been released about Ethan’s case.

One obstacle to intervention, identified by a state panel that studies deaths and serious injuries to children, is the failure of professionals who are mandated to report suspected abuse, state officials testified.

A day-care worker told the state Department of Health and Human Services about suspected abuse in Ethan’s home in Arundel, according to a police affidavit, which also said that Ethan’s arm was broken six weeks before he died.

The committees’s House chair, Meredith Strang Burgess, R-Cumberland, said she thought it was important for the committee to be briefed on the state’s response to suspected abuse.

“The Health and Human Services Committee, as the committee of oversight for DHHS, clearly had an interest in what was going on,” she said, referring to the circumstances of the death of Ethan, who allegedly was killed by his father in a fit of frustration.

Strang Burgess worked with Senate Chair Earle McCormick, R-West Gardiner, to hold the hearing after a reporter with The Portland Press Herald asked why more details about the case were not forthcoming.

The committee heard from a representative from the Attorney General’s Office, who said state law prohibits the DHHS from discussing specifics of a case that is under investigation.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew told legislators that caseworkers have been deeply affected by the incident.

“To state that their jobs are not easy and thankless would be a vast understatement,” Mayhew said. “I cannot think of any type of work where the stakes are so high and the performance so scrutinized.”

Mayhew said that whenever a child suffers abuse, caseworkers are emotionally affected.

“I know that staff throughout our state are feeling that pain today,” Mayhew said.

Therese Cahill-Low, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, explained the office’s process for handling reports of abuse, and issues that can interfere with that, including the failure by people outside her office to report suspected abuse.

“It’s very intimidating. People don’t like to put their relationships with families at risk,” she said. “But there’s bigger things at risk. We strongly believe the system starts to fall apart if no referrals are made.”

She said, “We are all responsible for a child’s welfare, period.”

A state panel, the Child Death and Serious Injury Review Team, examines all serious injuries to children and generates a report every two years with recommendations for ways to reduce those injuries, she said.

Cahill-Low cited a Harvard study showing that, nationally, pediatricians sometimes don’t report suspected abuse because they think they can fix the problem.

Another factor, she said, is that some mandated reporters feel that the DHHS won’t take any action, so they choose not to risk their relationship with the family.

The committee also discussed what appears to be an ambiguity in state law. After listing 32 professions that deal with children regularly and how each must report suspected abuse, the law says someone in a public, private or medical institution shall notify the person in charge of the facility. The law then says the staff person may also report the abuse directly to the DHHS.

Committee members and the DHHS staff said the staff person should report to an administrator and report it directly to the department.

Committee members also wanted to know how, and how quickly, Cahill-Low’s office handles reports of suspected abuse.

The office received 12,000 referrals last year, Cahill-Low told the committee. Each report of potential abuse or neglect is received by a caseworker at a central location in Augusta and reviewed by a supervisor, she said.

DHHS standards call for that information to be sent to a district office within 24 hours, and for caseworkers from the district office to go to the home or visit the child within 72 hours unless the threat is urgent.

The DHHS has 35 days to do a thorough investigation to determine whether the report is substantiated. It meets its goals of visiting within 72 hours and completing assessments within 35 days about 85 percent of the time.

Cahill-Low said the caseworkers who investigate complaints and work with families are dedicated advocates for children.

“Regardless of the stuff that gets said about these people, regardless of how many times their lives are threatened, regardless of how many times they’re attacked by people who have gone to their homes, these people are really fighting for what’s important, and that is children’s safety,” Cahill-Low said. 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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