Your editorials of March 1 and March 4 regarding the killing of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy reminded me of a similar killing in 1982. I was commissioner of what was then the Maine Department of Human Services during Joseph Brennan’s two terms as governor, and one of his administration’s top priorities was addressing child abuse and neglect.

In 1982, 3-year-old Garrianna Quinn was kicked to death by her stepfather in Washington County, where limited press capacity sometimes meant that a serious matter would be underreported, as was the case in Garrianna’s killing. A preliminary DHS in-house review of the case showed gross failure by the child protection system to help a helpless child. Not just DHS’ Child Protective Services unit, but the entire child protective services system – which consists of both criminal and civil legal proceedings.

Only civil proceedings – managed by the Department of Health and Human Services – enable the state, with approval by courts, to remove a child from an abusive home. And only criminal proceedings – driven by prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, courts – enable the state to remove an abuser from the home. These two processes, civil and criminal, frequently operate at the same time and require a high degree of coordination. Failure to do so can contribute to a child’s death.

In the Quinn case, for instance, Chester Quinn was charged with several violent crimes committed years prior to his murdering Garrianna. Seven times, a trial date was set for the earlier crimes, and seven times, a continuance was sought by the defense and granted by the court without objection by prosecutors – a deadly bargain that left Quinn free to visit and then kill his stepdaughter.

Opting for transparency, all of this was revealed by DHS’ in-house review and made public. It generated much attention and prompted the governor to appoint a high-level task force of those legally charged with protecting children to examine why the system failed and to recommend what changes were needed. Judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, key legislators, defense attorneys and others charged with protecting children were appointed. I chaired the group. We met regularly, and issues of coordination, resources and the differences in the civil and criminal legal proceedings were debated.

A detailed report was issued showing how the system failed Garrianna, and scores of administrative, legal and funding recommendations were made. The governor spotlighted the Quinn case and the task force recommendations in his State of the State address. Shortly thereafter, agencies adopted administrative changes, the Legislature passed laws and millions in new spending were committed to protect children and strengthen families.

The intense political will that fueled these changes was not so surprising. Once the public became better educated about the threats facing children and the obstacles facing the agencies charged with protecting them, they were on board.

Unfortunately, in the case involving Marissa Kennedy, DHHS appears to be invoking supposed confidentiality laws to justify its decision to not explain its role in protecting the child. As I read the law, it seems clear that Maine encourages DHHS – some would say mandates DHHS – to publicly disclose more rather than less information about these cases.

The law was not meant to shield the agency from public scrutiny. An informed public is essential to preventing future killings of children. The best way to do that for now is to have both a full review of DHHS’ – and its partners’ – role in Marissa’s case, and a full review of the state’s systemic capacity to stop abuse. Are new laws needed? Additional funding? Improved coordination? I hope DHHS, and the Legislature, will use this terrible event to advance public awareness about what is needed to protect all children from abuse.

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