The caseworker who placed Kendall Chick in the home where she was murdered had her professional license revoked after a state regulatory board found that she had falsified records. 

But Heather J. Campbell insists she did nothing wrong and said she has become a scapegoat for the 4-year-old’s death. 

Kendall Chick

An Aug. 3 decision by the state’s Board of Social Worker Licensure, obtained last week by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, concluded that Campbell “exhibited gross negligence, incompetence, or misconduct.” 

Campbell stated on an official form that she had conducted criminal background checks on Stephen Hood, Chick’s paternal grandfather, and Shawna Gatto, his fianceé, before placing the girl with them. An internal review by the state’s Office of Child and Family Services after Kendall’s death in December 2017 found no evidence that Campbell had completed those reports. 

Had the background check been conducted, the board decision says, it would have turned up assault convictions on Hood’s record, which could have led the state to place Kendall elsewhere. 

Gatto was convicted in April of murdering Kendall and sentenced to 50 years in prison. The state medical examiner testified at trial that the girl died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen and had signs of prolonged child abuse. 

The previously undisclosed details about Kendall’s caseworker were included in the regulatory board’s decision to revoke Campbell’s license, reprimand her for her conduct and fine her $1,000. Although the decision does not name Kendall, Hood or Gatto, the details make clear that it is their case. 

Campbell, in an emotional interview last week with the Press Herald/Sunday Telegram, said she did conduct background checks and learned of Hood’s criminal past, although in a second interview a day later she said she couldn’t be absolutely certain. She also said her supervisors knew about Hood’s criminal record and signed off on placing Kendall with Hood and Gatto. 

She said she believed Kendall was in a safe environment and that she never saw any signs of abuse or neglect before closing the girl’s case in early 2017, about 10 months before she died. 

“I don’t think anyone can understand what that’s like,” Campbell said, recalling her shock when she learned that Kendall had been killed. “I’m a sensitive person, an empathetic person – that’s why I got into social work – but I’ve also seen enough bizarre situations to know that anything is possible.” 

Campbell, 46, said her time as a state caseworker was marked by dysfunction that contributed to high staff turnover and unsustainable workloads. That description matches what several other caseworkers told the Press Herald last year. 

Kendall’s death – followed three months later by the death of another girl from child abuse, 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs – exposed long-held deficiencies in Maine’s child protective system and led to widespread calls for reform. 

Last fall, then-Gov. Paul LePage proposed $21 million in additional spending to add caseworkers and increase pay for caseworkers, who were overburdened with high caseloads and inconsistent expectations. His successor, Gov. Janet Mills, has continued to invest in that agency, adding 62 more positions in the Office of Child and Family Services within the Department of Health and Human Services. 

DEFICIENCIES AT DHHS 

Those involved in the complaint against Campbell and the decision to revoke her license, including the members of the state licensing board, declined to speak with the Press Herald/Sunday Telegram. 

Samantha Morgan at the Maine Attorney General’s Office, who prosecuted the case, declined to comment through a spokesman, who said the decision speaks for itself. DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said the department was “unable to comment on personnel issues regarding current and former employees” but agrees with the board’s findings. 

“While we can’t speak to previous practices, under the new administration we are taking action to turn the page and improve the child welfare system to ensure the safety and well-being of Maine children and families,” she said. 

Farwell mentioned specifically requiring supervisors to review background check information and approve kinship assessments before a child is placed and making sure cases remain open until all child safety concerns are addressed. 

State officials have never answered questions about whether any employees were disciplined in the wake of Kendall’s death, although they have acknowledged that her case was beset by “deficits in the casework practice and oversight, including failures to adhere to agency policies.” 

In June, the same day Gatto was sentencedDHHS provided the Press Herald with a synopsis of Kendall’s case. The paper had requested records more than a year ago but was advised that no details would be released until Gatto’s criminal case concluded. 

Among the revelations: that caseworkers visited Kendall in person only twice during the eight months when her case was open. Agency rules require 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. 

Campbell said those details made it seem as though she erred in handling the case. She said her recollection was that she visited the home in six of the eight months before the case was closed. She also said she had regular contact with Gatto and was confident that Kendall was safe. 

“I don’t think that there is anything that could have been done differently,” Campbell said. “Kendall was safe. My supervisors thought so too. The warning signs just weren’t there.” 

Campbell said the reason she didn’t always conduct in-person visits was that caseworkers had too much work. They were bogged down with paperwork and forced to work long hours for which they weren’t always paid, she said. There was perpetual turnover at the administrative level, which led to shifting expectations. 

“’Dysfunction’ might be too weak a word,” she said. 

Still, Campbell said the pressure was never so great that she felt compelled to cut corners or close cases quickly. 

Kendall is not the only death to raise questions about the state child protective system. According to data released to the Press Herald this summer, 18 children in Maine have been killed since 2007 in homes where state child welfare officials knew that the children or their siblings were subjected to abuse or neglect. An additional 34 deaths that were ruled accidental or of natural causes occurred in homes where abuse or neglect was substantiated. 

A TROUBLED START 

According to information released this summer by DHHS, Kendall’s first interaction with the child protective system was the day she was born in November 2013, when the state received a report and conducted an assessment. Kendall stayed with her parents after that initial report, but the state referred her parents, Alicia Chick and Scott Hood, to services, including parenting education, housing assistance and substance use disorder treatment. The case closed in August 2014, after Chick found stable housing. 

In May 2016, another report involving Kendall was made. This time, the department assigned a caseworker, now known to be Campbell, who substantiated allegations of neglect by Kendall’s mother and determined that the girl should not live with her. 

Campbell said it was Chick who suggested that her daughter be placed with Stephen Hood and Shawna Gatto because they had been watching her regularly – sometimes for months at a time – while Chick struggled with substance use. Campbell said she never had contact with Kendall’s father, who was living on the street. 

Kinship placements – placing children suspected of being abused or neglected with family members – is the state’s preferred course of action. However, policy requires caseworkers to inspect the home and conduct criminal background checks on all adults in the household. 

Campbell, according to the licensing board decision, indicated in her assessment that she requested and received criminal history reports on Hood and Gatto and that neither had any criminal convictions or pending charges. It was revealed at Gatto’s trial that Hood had prior assault convictions, including for domestic assault, in Florida. 

“Knowledge of the paternal grandfather’s criminal history would at a minimum have warranted further exploration before placing the child in the home and very likely would have disqualified these kinship caregivers from being selected as a safe and appropriate placement for the child,” the board’s decision reads. 

But Campbell said she did know about Hood’s criminal history. She said that her two supervisors, both of whom have left the department, knew as well. Attempts to reach them were not successful. It was also revealed at Gatto’s trial that she and Hood were being treated for substance use disorder. 

Those details were weighed against other factors, Campbell said, and it was determined that Hood and Gatto’s home was the best placement for Kendall. 

“Kinship placement still takes (precedence over foster homes), so those things are more readily forgiven when it’s kinship,” she said. 

PROLONGED ABUSE 

Kendall was developmentally delayed from being born drug-affected but bonded with Gatto, Campbell said. 

She said Gatto seemed overwhelmed at times – Hood worked a lot, and she cared for two of her own grandchildren – but she was offered resources, including counseling and training and respite care to give her a break. Campbell also said she advised the couple to formally seek guardianship of Kendall, but they never did. 

“They didn’t follow through on a lot of recommendations,” Campbell said of Hood and Gatto. 

Kendall was subjected to prolonged abuse that eventually led to her death. In the months before she died, there were signs that Gatto and Hood were frustrated and openly questioned whether they could care for Kendall. But that was long after the child protective case closed. 

After the girl’s death on Dec. 8, 2017, the Office of Child and Family Services conducted an internal review and found no criminal history reports in Kendall’s file. Additionally, a search of Campbell’s emails found no evidence that she had requested the background checks. 

Asked about this, Campbell said in a follow-up interview last week that she couldn’t recall with certainty whether she had submitted the requests. 

“We did it in every case, so I feel confident it was done,” she said. “But there were times when caseworkers were in the field and people back at the office, often supervisors, did some of that work. I don’t know if that happened in this case. We knew about (Hood’s) history.” 

Campbell’s boss, Kirsten Capeless, filed a complaint against her with the Board of Social Worker Licensure on April 30, 2018, five months after Kendall’s death. Capeless no longer works for OCFS and the Press Herald/Sunday Telegram could not reach her. 

According to the board’s decision, Campbell filed a response to Capeless’ complaint on June 22, 2018, in which she denied falsifying records but “noted that she had left her job with OCFS six months earlier due to stressful and unsupportive working conditions,” and “expressed concern that she was being scapegoated due to the tragic outcome of the child.” 

It’s not clear how often state caseworkers face complaints before the Board of Social Worker Licensure, which also oversees social workers in the private sector. The state was unable to provide that data last week. A review of board minutes shows that at least two dozen workers have faced complaints this year, but the minutes don’t specify whether a complaint involves a public or private social worker. 

Campbell said she understands that people want to place blame for Kendall’s death and that some of that blame has been directed at her. She said living with the outcome has been difficult. 

In the days that followed Kendall’s death, Campbell said she was told that she would get a debriefing with her supervisors and would be provided counseling. Neither happened, she said. 

She said she was not interviewed during the internal investigation. 

When the state informed her about the license revocation hearing, she did not respond or show up. In hindsight, she said, she wishes she had done so. 

“I had so much anxiety and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” she said. “Even talking about it now makes me feel sick. I knew the complaint was wrong, but I didn’t feel I had any support.” 

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