Maine saw a 26 percent increase in the number of reports of child abuse or neglect last year, a trend officials attribute to increased awareness spurred by the high-profile deaths of two children from child abuse.

An annual report released this month by the Department of Health and Human Services showed 24,675 referrals were made in 2018, up from 19,567 the year before. The number of referrals is by far the most since at least 2003, according to reports archived on the department’s website.

The number of reports that were assigned to caseworkers for assessment increased at an even greater rate, 39 percent, from 7,288 to 10,119, while the number of assessments where abuse or neglect was substantiated jumped 23 percent, from 2,160 to 2,665, which is the most substantiated cases since at least 2003.

Officials said the increase was not unexpected following the death of two children – 4-year-old Kendall Chick in Wiscasset and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs – from prolonged abuse.

Todd Landry Kevin Gaddis Jr.

“Much of it is due to increased awareness. This is a trend that is not atypical when states have high-profile cases like the state of Maine has had with the two tragic deaths last year,” said Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services.

While Landry said more reports are welcome, the increase has put strain on an already over-burdened system that was beset by high staff turnover and low morale during the Republican administration of Gov. Paul LePage.

Since late last year, the Office of Child and Family Services has added nearly 50 new positions to deal with the increase in calls and more were approved in the biennial budget that passed this year. Landry said he hopes to hire 33 more workers beginning in September.

Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, the House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said filling those positions could be a challenge.

“Like with so many other sectors, we have a workforce shortage,” she said.

Landry hopes that by stabilizing his office and being able to offer a starting salary that has been increased by $5 an hour, filling more positions will be possible. Already, he said, he’s been able to address high turnover. Last year, caseworkers were leaving at a 30 percent rate. So far this year it’s less than 10 percent.

“The feedback I’ve received from staff has been hopeful about the future,” he said. “They are appreciative of the recognition of the work they do, which is some of the hardest work you see in government.

“But the increase we’ve seen has certainly stressed the system.”

Under Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, the Office of Child and Family Services also has adopted a centralized background check unit which alleviates some pressure on frontline workers. Additionally, the office is in the process of switching to a new information system that is expected to streamline record keeping and decrease the amount of time caseworkers spend on paperwork.

The 2018 Child Protective Services report shows that roughly half of all referrals last year, 11,831, were deemed inappropriate and not assigned to a caseworker for assessment. Examples of inappropriate reports include non-specific allegations that may constitute poor parenting but might not rise to the level of abuse or neglect.

The report also showed that abuse is far more likely to be found in homes where there are multiple risk factors, something child welfare officials have long known.

“The risk factors with the greatest prevalence are domestic violence and drug/alcohol use,” the report said.

Domestic violence was a factor in 15 percent of assessments made in 2018, drug use was present in 12 percent of cases and alcohol use was found in 9 percent.

Referrals most often came from school personnel (22 percent) or law enforcement (15 percent), but 7 percent of reports in 2018 were made anonymously.

Another change in 2018 was the decrease in the number cases assigned to what DHHS refers to as alternative response. For most cases, a DHHS caseworker is assigned, but in some instances when allegations are considered to be of low or moderate severity the state contracts with agencies to provide an alternative response.

The number of cases assigned to alternative response in 2018 was 1,788, down from 2,185 the year before. However, for much of 2018, there was no alternative response provider in four counties – Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Waldo – a void that has since been addressed.

The increase in abuse or neglect cases in Maine may be bucking a national trend. A federal report from January analyzed data from state child protective service agencies and found that the number of children who suffered from abuse or neglect declined for the second straight year in 2017, to 674,000 cases. That data did not include 2018, however.

Kendall Chick, 4, of Wiscasset and Marissa Kennedy, 10, of Stockton Springs. Photo courtesy of the Maine Office of the Attorney General

The report did indicate that, as Landry said, high-profile cases of abuse often lead to an increase in reports, at least in the short term.

The death of Kendall Chick in December 2017 followed three months later by the death of Marissa Kennedy had that effect in Maine. While the deaths both put a spotlight on a chronically understaffed and overworked system, they also led to more work.

The criminal cases involving those two deaths are nearing resolve. Shawna Gatto was convicted in June of murdering Chick and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Julio Carillo, Kennedy’s step-father, pleaded guilty this month to killing the girl. He has not been sentenced. Her mother, Sharon Carillo, also has been charged with depraved indifference murder and awaits trial.

After Gatto was sentenced last month, DHHS released information about Chick’s history with Child Protective Services that made it clear caseworkers did not follow protocol.

The girl had been removed from her mother’s care because of abuse and placed with her paternal grandfather, Stephen Hood, and Gatto, his fiancé.

But caseworkers did not follow up on Kendall’s welfare. They visited the house only twice, even though policy requires monthly visits, and closed her case 10 months before she was killed.

The state also released information last month that documented 18 child deaths since 2007 in homes where state child welfare officials knew that the children or their siblings were subjected to abuse or neglect, sometimes over a period of years. An additional 34 deaths that were ruled accidental or of natural causes occurred in homes where abuse or neglect was substantiated.

State welfare ombudsman Christine Alberi said at the time: “You could certainly make the case that some might have been preventable.”

Alberi said the recent report didn’t tell her anything she didn’t already know. She said it’s too early to tell whether the increase will be a blip or whether it will continue.

“Certainly people should not be discouraged from calling the abuse hotline,” she said.

Landry said because the increase in reports and substantiated cases has led to more children in state custody, the foster care system has been strained, too. He encouraged anyone who has an interest in fostering to reach out.

Hymanson, the House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said she is much more confident in the department’s handling of child welfare cases.

“The department has been very good about giving us updates on what they are finding in real time, which is so different from the last two sessions,” she said.

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