Maine child welfare officials closed their case involving Kendall Chick almost 10 months before the girl died from abuse at the hands of her primary caretaker, according to new information released Tuesday.

Before closing the case, state officials visited the home of Stephen Hood, Kendall’s paternal grandfather, and Shawna Gatto, his fiancé, only twice – in November and December 2016. Agency rules mandate monthly in-person visits with families who assume custody of children who have been removed from homes because of suspected abuse or neglect, which Kendall had.

Outside of the two home visits, child welfare officials contacted Gatto six times by phone between June 2016 and January 2017.

The next report to the Department of Health and Human Services involving Kendall came in December 2017, when the girl was found dead inside Hood and Gatto’s Wiscasset home. She had just turned 4.

Kendall Chick died with multiple injuries.

DHHS officials on Tuesday provided newly released information about Kendall’s death, and her experience with child protective services, under a state statute known as the Child and Family Services and Child Protection Act.

The Portland Press Herald had requested records more than a year ago but was advised that no details would be released until the criminal case concluded.

Gatto was found guilty of murder in late April, following a five-day trial and was sentenced Tuesday to 50 years in prison.

Some of the information about how Kendall came into contact with child protective services came out during Gatto’s trial, but the details released Tuesday by the state offer the clearest picture yet of Kendall’s short, tragic life.

Her first interaction with the system was the day she was born in November 2013. DHHS received a report and conducted an assessment. The information released Tuesday doesn’t say why the report was made, nor does it identify Kendall’s mother, Alicia Chick, or father, Scott Hood, both of whom struggled with substance use disorder when the girl was born and after. Alicia Chick also had lost custody of previous children, although the state wouldn’t say where those children are or whether the people who adopted them ever inquired about adopting Kendall, too.

Kendall stayed with her parents, but the state referred them to services, including “parenting education, housing assistance and treatment related to the problems reported.”

DHHS monitored Alicia Chick’s participation in those services and then closed the case in August 2014, after she had found stable housing.

Two months later, the department received a report and after assessing allegations contained in it “made no findings of abuse or neglect.”

A year and a half later, in May 2016, another report involving Kendall was made. This time, the department assigned a caseworker, who substantiated allegations of neglect by Kendall’s parents.

At that point, the state placed Kendall with Hood and Gatto, who had previously watched Kendall on weekends and sometimes for longer stretches. Kendall would remain in her parents’ legal custody but would be put under a safety plan. The state conducted a kinship home study, which is required by law, prior to placing Kendall with Hood and Gatto.

However, the department disclosed Tuesday that its own internal review found “deficits in the casework practice and oversight, including failures to adhere to agency policies in the kinship home study.”

Further, the department said, “Neither parent engaged in the services recommended by the department to increase Kendall’s safety in their care and Kendall remained in the home of her paternal grandfather and Shawna Gatto.”

This is the first confirmation that Kendall was placed with Hood and Gatto under a safety plan, which is a voluntary agreement between the department and a child’s caregivers that allows parents to work with caseworkers to get their children back sooner.

Safety plans have come under scrutiny by the state’s child welfare ombudsman, Christine Alberi.

“When parents and DHHS agreed to a safety plan because children are at risk in their parents’ care, safety plans have often exceeded a planned amount of time and were not properly monitored,” Alberi wrote in her annual report to the Legislature last year. “Unstructured and poorly monitored safety plans often left children without the benefit of legal protection from their parents and additional resources such as the courts, foster homes and Guardians ad litem (legal representatives for  children in state custody).”

DHHS spokesman Jackie Farwell has said that safety plans are now used only when children are able to be maintained safely in the home with their parents, with monitoring and support from DHHS caseworkers and sometimes extended family members. Safety plans are no longer in place for children who are placed outside their homes.

Kendall lived the final 18 months of her life with Hood and Gatto, where she was subjected to prolonged abuse that eventually led to her death.

In the months before she died, there were signs that both Gatto and Hood were frustrated and openly questioned whether they could care for Kendall.

“I’m so (expletive) done with this kid,” Gatto texted to Hood weeks before Kendall died. That text and others were shared during her trial.

In another, Hood wrote to Gatto: “Call DHHS, see what they say. If they think she needs special care they can place her. Fine, take her.”

DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, in a statement sent with the memo about Kendall’s case, said the death of a child “reverberates throughout a community.”

“We take seriously our responsibility to protect the health and safety of Maine children, and continue to take action, including adding to the ranks of our child welfare caseworkers, better supporting foster parents, tackling substance use disorders, and promoting safe sleep environments for new babies,” Lambrew said.

In most cases, details about reports of child abuse or neglect are confidential. However, according to statute, Maine’s health and human services commissioner “shall make public disclosure of the findings or information pursuant to this section in situations where child abuse or neglect results in a child fatality or near fatality.”

The statute then spells out what information can be released, including reports of abuse or neglect and any actions taken and whether a child or the child’s family received care or services from the state prior to every report of abuse or neglect.

Finally, the statute has a provision for the release of “any extraordinary or pertinent information concerning the circumstances of the abuse or neglect of the child and the investigation of the abuse or neglect, if the commissioner determines the disclosure is consistent with the public interest.”

The state is not required to release any information about where reports of abuse or neglect originated or identify any siblings or parents or guardians who are not the subject of any report.

The state is also not required to release any medical or psychiatric records or reports unless they relate directly to the cause of the abuse or neglect.

Marissa Kennedy

Kendall’s death, followed three months later by the death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs, led to an internal DHHS investigation and a review by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. Both concluded that procedures were not followed in either case and that likely contributed to their deaths. Caseworkers also started speaking out about conditions within their agency that made their jobs nearly impossible. They cited unsustainable caseloads, high staff turnover and an anemic foster care system that led to many caseworkers spending nights in hotel rooms with kids until safe placements could be found.

In Kennedy’s case, both her mother, Sharon Carrillo, and step-father, Julio Carrillo, have been charged with murder and await separate trials.

Many changes have followed the girls’ deaths, both during the final months of the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage and early on in Gov. Janet Mills’ tenure. The state already has boosted staffing in child protection by more than 100 jobs since last year and 62 more were included in the biennial budget that passed this month.

Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham, who followed Kendall’s case closely and sat in on much of the trial, said more needs to be done.

“Since Logan Marr died in 2001 – through four gubernatorial administrations – we’ve had seven commissioners of DHHS, and kids are still dying,” Diamond said, referencing another high-profile death that helped reshape the state’s child protection system. “We need action on all fronts to address this problem, not just from DHHS, but from the courts, the Legislature and law enforcement. We have to act now.”

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