Lawmakers and children’s advocates ratcheted up the pressure on the LePage administration Friday, calling for an investigation of how it handled reports of what state police say was a case of prolonged and severe abuse that led to the death of a 10-year-old girl in Stockton Springs.

Marissa Kennedy was beaten daily in the months leading to her death Sunday in Stockton Springs, police say, and lawmakers and children’s advocates want to know why state officials did not intervene. Photo courtesy of Maine Attorney General's Office

The office of Gov. Paul LePage issued a statement Friday saying the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is already conducting an internal investigation and will report its findings to the governor.

Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-Wells, co-chair of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, called Friday for a Government Oversight Committee investigation into the death of Marissa Kennedy. Also Friday, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, urged LePage to get personally involved in the case. Thibodeau first called for an investigation of DHHS on Thursday night.

Lawmakers are asking how DHHS responded to complaints made against Marissa’s mother and stepfather leading up to the girl’s death Sunday. Police reported that she suffered daily beatings that continued for months by her mother, Sharon Carillo, 33, and stepfather, Julio Carrillo, 51. Both face charges of depraved indifference murder.

Neighbors and Bangor school officials have said they reported suspected abuse to Maine DHHS. The Carrillos moved from Bangor to Stockton Springs last year.

So far, Maine DHHS has refused to answer questions about the case, saying state law requires that the agency’s Child Protective Service unit cases be confidential.

“There were a lot of people who reported to DHHS in different parts of this girl’s life, but it was not acted on in a way that was meaningful for her life,” Hymanson said. “People handed off the information, but either people didn’t know what to do with that information, or something happened. The ball was dropped somehow.”

The Stockton Springs case follows the death of a 4-year-old Wiscasset girl in December. A Wiscasset woman was charged with depraved indifference murder in the killing of Kendall Chick.

Thibodeau, who is running for governor this year, implored LePage to become involved personally Friday.

“I would ask that you, as governor, dig into this matter as best as you can,” Thibodeau wrote. “While it is unconscionable that Marissa Kennedy’s life was taken away, we must ensure this does not happen again. Marissa’s story must not be in vain.”

Julie Rabinowitz, a LePage spokeswoman, released a statement Friday afternoon responding to Thibodeau.

“The DHHS internal investigation process began immediately and is already well underway. These reviews are being carried out both internally and by cross-governmental entities. All findings and recommendations of the investigations will be reported to Gov. LePage for his review and action,” Rabinowitz wrote.

Maine’s caseload and response time to complaints is almost exactly average, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report for 2016, the most recent year available. The Maine Child Protective Services response time to a complaint was 72 hours, exactly the national average, while the number of completed reports per year per investigator in Maine was 73, compared to the national average of 72.

But Maine also has had an increase in the number of reports to CPS, and the total number of children in state care has climbed in recent years, according to Maine DHHS statistics.

Children in state care, including the foster care system, increased from 1,322 in 2011 to 1,852 in 2017. The 2017 cases were down slightly from 2016, when 1,953 children were in state care of some kind, which includes foster care or kinship care or children placed in residential care.

Also, the number of reports of suspected abuse to Maine CPS increased from 6,313 in 2016 to 8,279 in 2018.

Hymanson wonders whether the workload increase is making it more likely that cases fall through the cracks.

“If there’s an increased number of cases, is there also a corresponding increase in the capacity to handle the cases? Is this a case of caseworker overload?” Hymanson said. “It behooves us to look at the whole system and find out what happened.”

If the oversight committee agrees an investigation is warranted, it would task a state agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, with examining DHHS policies and procedures and determining what flaws need to be corrected.

A 2017 Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman report noted that in cases referred to the ombudsman, in some instances CPS was not following correct protocols. The ombudsman is tasked with reviewing specific cases in which people dissatisfied with the outcome of a CPS investigation can file complaints. The ombudsman’s office reported that 25 of 72 complaints about how CPS handled abuse investigations – from October 2016 to September 2017 – were valid.

“Multiple cases involved failure to follow assessment policy, failure to follow safety planning policy, or failure to recognize risk to children in their parents’ care,” the annual report said.

Rabinowitz said in a statement that “DHHS is conducting rigorous internal investigations that will include intensive case-record review, interviews with any and all staff involved, assessment and determination of whether established policies and procedures were followed and recommendations for changes or additional policies, including recommendations to the governor for possible legislation.”

Claire Berkowitz, executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, said that DHHS should “always be looking at best practices and following through.” Berkowitz said in general, children do best when they stay with family members, but they must be removed when it’s not safe.

There are far fewer Maine children in foster care compared with the early 2000s, when there were routinely 2,500 or more children in state care. Most states have moved to a foster care system that prioritizes keeping families together when possible.

Berkowitz said the LePage administration’s cuts to Medicaid and other social service programs have made it difficult for parents struggling to get by, and that puts more children at risk. Without Medicaid, for instance, parents can’t access substance abuse treatment and mental health care.

“We’ve dismantled the safety net in our state and our kids are paying the price,” Berkowitz said.

Meanwhile, Maine DHHS also has announced that in September it plans to end the $2.2 million Community Partnerships for Protecting Children program, a child abuse prevention program. Social service providers roundly criticized the decision, saying the program is effective, but Maine DHHS officials said its services duplicate other prevention programs.

Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, introduced a bill this week that would restore funding for the CPPC program.

“In the past three months, we have been witness to two tragic deaths of children at the hands of child abusers,” Beebe-Center said. “Why on earth would we be cutting well-respected programs and jeopardizing the lives of even more children? I will not sit idly by while this administration systematically destroys successful services that protect our kids.”

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: joelawlorph