Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services has asked an outside agency to assist with an investigation and evaluation of the deaths of four young children in Maine over the past month.

Three of those deaths have led to murder and manslaughter charges, including Wednesday’s arrest of Jessica Williams, 35, of Stockton Springs, who is accused of causing the death of her 3-year-old son.

Thursday’s announcement renews scrutiny on Maine’s child welfare system, which for decades has been subjected to calls for reform, often following high-profile deaths – most recently after the deaths of 4-year-old Kendall Chick in late 2017 and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in 2018.

DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said the state could not say what, if any, involvement child protection officials have had with families in the four recent deaths. However, the decision to engage an outside expert suggests state officials don’t want to wait for the criminal cases to be resolved before seeing if any flaws in the system contributed to these deaths.

Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a statement that the decision to bring in Casey Family Programs, a national organization that works on child well-being issues, is a “call to action.”

“These deaths, like all involving children, are heartbreaking and deeply concerning. Every child in Maine deserves to have the opportunity to grow up healthy, to get a good education, and to live a productive, happy, and meaningful life. When children die, they are robbed of these opportunities and we lose the light, love, and potential of these children,” Lambrew said. “This is a call to action. In addition to our own review and ongoing work, we requested Casey Family Programs bring to bear its wealth of experience and national perspective to help us, and we’re bolstering StrengthenME to ensure Maine families have access to the support they need to cope with the significant stresses of the pandemic.”

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a longtime advocate for improving Maine’s child welfare system, said he’s glad to see the state bring in an outside consultant. But he wishes state officials would be more receptive to concerns and questions that have been raised locally, including in a recent report by the child welfare ombudsman, Christine Alberi.

“The burning question is: Why did you wait? The ombudsman told you there were problems and they were specific about those problems. And nothing was done,” he said. “Every single time, a kid dies and then they say that’s when they’re going to do something.”

Diamond said Thursday that while it remains to be seen whether DHHS had any involvement with the placement or care of the children who died recently, hearing that parents were charged in three of those deaths “tears my heart out.”

“It’s frustrating as hell, frankly, that this is still going on,” he said.

Alberi released a statement Thursday about the state’s decision to work with Casey Family Programs.

“All children in Maine deserve safe homes and the protection of a strong child welfare system. The recent loss of four young Maine children is tragic and deserves a full and thorough investigation,” she said. “For years, the Child Welfare Ombudsman’s office, along with the Office of Child and Family Services’ own internal Quality Assurance Department, have both consistently found serious practice issues that directly affect child safety. The Ombudsman’s office has highlighted the ongoing struggle to make safety decisions for children at both the beginnings and ends of cases, often due to lack of ongoing assessments of families.

“We welcome the expertise of Casey Family Services and we will continue our mission to advocate for improvements for all Maine children that are now at risk, in state custody, or otherwise living difficult and precarious lives.”

The first child death this month occurred June 1 in Brewer. Police have since charged Ronald Harding with manslaughter in the death of his 6-week-old son, who police allege was shaken to death.

Five days later, a 3-year-old girl was found dead in Old Town. Police arrested the mother, Hillary Gooding, and charged her with manslaughter as well. The girl’s cause of death has not been released.

And on June 17, a 4-year-old boy from the Franklin County town of Franklin died from what police believe was an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound. No one has been charged in connection with that case.

The most recent death, of 3-year-old Maddox Williams, occurred Sunday in Stockton Springs. His cause of death also has not been released but police arrested the mother Wednesday. Jessica Williams is expected to be formally charged with murder at a 9 a.m. court hearing on Friday.

Jessica Williams Courtesy of Waldo County Jail

The department is conducting its own review of the recent child deaths, which is standard policy, and Alberi also will review all but the accidental death, but the decision to bring in Casey Family Programs is a proactive approach that hasn’t been typical historically. Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Safety, said the consultant will help state officials learn from the recent deaths to protect Maine children and support their families.

The work by the foundation will include an evaluation of whether changes are needed in Maine’s Child & Family Services Strategic Plan, which was adopted in 2019. After the evaluation, the department will publicly release any recommended changes to the plan.

“The death of a child is a tragic loss for that child’s family, this community and our state as a whole,” Landry said in a statement. “It’s our responsibility as a state and as a society to do everything we can to help children grow up safe and ensure that they have the love and attention they need.”

The department previously announced it would intensify and expand the StrengthenME campaign, which offers free stress management and resiliency resources for anyone in Maine experiencing stress reactions to the pandemic. There is evidence from Maine and across the country that suggests people are experiencing heightened mental health and substance use issues that are impacting parents and children, according to the department.

DHHS has undertaken numerous reforms during the past several years, including hiring dozens of caseworkers and expanding training – much of it prompted by reforms since the high-profile deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy.

In annual reports to the Legislature in 2020 and 2021, Maine’s child welfare ombudsman found DHHS had made progress, but she also highlighted serious concerns about DHHS’ handling of dozens of cases she reviewed.

In 2020, 11 children died in Maine who had prior involvement with the state’s child welfare system. None were ruled homicides, according to DHHS.

Diamond sponsored legislation this year that would have created a new Cabinet-level department in state government with the sole task of protecting children from suffering and neglect. He said in April that a new department focusing solely on child safety is necessary because DHHS is too large and complex to adequately address the need. But the department opposed the proposal, saying it didn’t take into account the complexity of redirecting funding streams for child-related programs or incorporate other state programs that support children into the proposed new department.

Diamond’s bill cleared the state Senate on June 8, only to die in the House the following day.

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