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Journal Tribune
Posted
Updated November 10, 2019
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State failed to follow procedures and share information in girls’ deaths

Kendall Chick, 4, of Wiscasset and Marissa Kennedy, 10, of Stockton Springs. Police say both children died after being beaten for months. COURTESY PHOTOS/Maine Attorney General’s Office

Kendall Chick, 4, of Wiscasset and Marissa Kennedy, 10, of Stockton Springs. Police say both children died after being beaten for months.
Kendall Chick, 4, of Wiscasset and Marissa Kennedy, 10, of Stockton Springs. Police say both children died after being beaten for months. COURTESY PHOTOS/Maine Attorney General’s Office

State child protective workers failed to follow policies and procedures in assessing the placement of a young girl who died as a result of abuse last winter, the Legislature’s watchdog agency concluded in a review released Thursday.

In the case of a second girl’s death, there were widely scattered reports of potential abuse or neglect, but information was not shared at critical moments, which might have led to a reassessment of the child’s situation that prompted officials to intervene, according to the report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

The agency released its nine-page report on the two abuse deaths at a meeting of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, which commissioned the OPEGA investigation, but the report was vague as many details were lacking. The report didn’t specify which girl’s death it was referring to when listing failures of the Department of Health and Human Services and its Office of Child and Family Services to follow policy.

OPEGA said it could not draw any firm conclusions outside of the “missed opportunities,” and its executive director, Beth Ashcroft, told the committee that investigators could not share more details because of pending criminal investigations and federal and state laws that protect the confidentiality of child protective records.

“In one case, OCFS (Office of Child and Family Services) failed to follow policies and procedures in fully assessing the appropriateness of the placement and staying engaged with the child and family to ensure needed services and supports were provided,” the report said. “Poor job performance and inadequate supervision appear to have been factors.”

Ashcroft said there were “consequences” for state workers who failed to act properly, but she wouldn’t go into more details.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the oversight panel, said it was “beyond frustrating” that so little information could be released. “We have miserably failed these kids,” Katz said.

When there’s a “colossal failure” by state government, he asserted, public airing of the deficiencies in the system should trump privacy rights of people facing criminal charges.

“Agencies are being shielded from accountability because of the laws we have passed,” Katz said.

Katz and other lawmakers expressed frustration at the lack of detail in the report, saying the law now gives DHHS the authority to determine whether information about cases should be made public. Katz said he will introduce a bill in 2019 that would shift that authority to legislative committees.

Katz said it wasn’t OPEGA’s fault that the report lacks details, because the agency’s investigators were working with “two hands tied behind their back.”

“I don’t see one fact in here,” Katz said, referring to the vague references to the girls’ cases.

OPEGA’s study focused primarily on the Office of Child and Family Services. Secondarily, the study looked at the actions of “mandated reporters,” such as police officers, teachers, health care workers and others who had a legal responsibility to report suspected abuse or neglect of the girls to DHHS.

The DHHS child protective system has been under an intense spotlight since the child abuse-related deaths of the two girls. Chick, the 4-year-old from Wiscasset, died in December, while 10-year-old Kennedy died in February in Stockton Springs. Sharon Carrillo, Marissa’s mother, and Julio Carrillo, her stepfather, have both been charged with murder in Marissa Kennedy’s death. Shawna Gatto, Kendall Chick’s caregiver, has been charged with murder in her death.

OPEGA was tasked with examining what shortcomings, if any, occurred in the state’s investigation into the two cases. It’s not clear how much Maine DHHS officials knew about the conditions the girls were living in. Marissa Kennedy was beaten daily for months prior to her death, according to police reports.

OPEGA investigators had to weigh what could be publicly released and what information had to be kept confidential because of the pending criminal cases and federal and state confidentiality laws.

“Consequently, this (study) includes only a high-level summary of OPEGA’s observations from the two cases, the role of DHHS and mandated reporters in protecting children, and potential areas for concern or improvement,” the study said.

It said the two cases “are nearly on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of interactions with mandated reporters and other individuals that had opportunities to observe what was going on in their young lives.” The study also said the cases “differ substantially with regard to specific areas within the child protection system where there may have been missed opportunities to better protect them from harm.”

However, the study notes that both girls had suffered physical abuse in their homes over a period of time, and that when outsiders observed injuries that might indicate abuse, parents or other adults in the home explained them as injuries the children caused themselves.

“Observers appear to have found these explanations reasonable at those times given what they knew of the child and family,” the report said.

OPEGA plans to release a more wide-ranging report on the overall effectiveness of the state’s Child Protective Services program later this year.

Since the late 2000s, caseloads for DHHS child protective workers have increased by about 50 percent, according to a federal report. Reports of suspected child abuse and neglect cases jumped from 6,313 cases in 2008 to 8,279 cases in 2016, the latest year statistics were available, according to state statistics.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said he realizes that OPEGA is constrained in what it can release, but he would like to see some action taken soon to help make sure children are protected.

“It’s driving me crazy to sit here knowing these situations continue to go on,” Diamond said.

Lawmakers said they would be interested in learning how agencies communicate with each other about suspected child abuse cases, and what happens when schools and police, for instance, notify DHHS about possible abuse. Ashcroft said school and police responses to possible abuse vary widely. She said school districts have differing policies for handling truancy – which could be an indicator that a child is being abused at home – and some police departments look for patterns if there are multiple service calls to one location for suspected domestic violence or child abuse.

Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, D-Bangor, said when OPEGA does its full evaluation, the agency should look at system-wide issues and not be intent on blaming individual employees.

“Are we blaming the platoon grunt rather than the general?” Gratwick said.

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