Jessica William appears in court in Belfast on Friday on a murder charge stemming from the death of her 3-year-old son, Maddox. Bangor Daily News via Associated Press

BELFAST — The 35-year-old Stockton Springs woman charged with murder in the death of her 3-year-old son last weekend was given custody of the boy earlier this year after his biological father was arrested several times.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services became involved with Maddox Williams’ parents at least twice during his short life, court documents show. While the extent of that involvement remains unclear – the state is unable to comment on active criminal cases – the details are likely to become a focal point of both the police investigation into the injuries Maddox suffered before his death as well as an internal DHHS review sparked by another string of child deaths.

Maddox Williams was the fourth Maine child to die in less than a month because of suspected abuse or by accident. Police were investigating a fifth death on Friday, of a 4-year-old boy in Windham, but have yet to release a cause of death. Maddox’s death in Stockton Springs comes less than 3½ years after 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy died of abuse in the small town in Waldo County.

Leane Zainea, an assistant attorney general, declined to discuss the murder charge against Maddox Williams’ mother, Jessica Williams, outside a Belfast courthouse Friday. Zainea also prosecuted the 2019 case that ended with a 48-year sentence against Sharon Kennedy of Stockton Springs for the abuse death of her daughter.

“I’m not sure you can ever compare the death of a child with the death of another child because each and every one is different and involves the life of someone who is a very young innocent,” she said.

There were two court proceedings Friday related to Maddox Williams, who died Sunday as a result of what the state Medical Examiner’s Office said was intentional “blunt force trauma.”

In Belfast, Jessica Williams, who also goes by the name Jessica Trefethen, made her initial court appearance on the charges of “depraved indifference murder.” A judge set bail at $150,000 cash and directed Williams to avoid contact with children under age 14 as well as more than a half-dozen people who were named.

Criminal charging documents filed Thursday against Williams allege her son had severe bruising and abrasions, a fractured spine, internal bleeding in the brain and abdomen, as well as several missing teeth. The Medical Examiner’s Office determined after an autopsy that Maddox’s injuries “were indicative of inflicted injuries and were not consistent with a fall, being kicked in the stomach, or knocked down.”

During the brief hearing in Waldo County Superior Court, Williams quietly responded “yes” to Justice Robert Murray’s questions about whether she understood the charges against her and whether she wanted a court-appointed attorney.

A grand jury will hear the evidence against Williams at a later date.

In Rockland, meanwhile, a Knox County judge denied a request from the boy’s biological father, Andrew Williams, to be temporarily released from jail so he could help handle his son’s funeral arrangements.

Police say Andrew Williams was carrying then 2-year-old Maddox with him in January 2020 when he broke into a Rockland home and attempted to steal items. He was charged with burglary, felony theft, endangering the welfare of a child and two counts of unlawful possession of drugs.

The Bangor Daily News reported Friday that a DHHS caseworker was called in to care for Maddox during the burglary investigation.

Andrew Williams was released on bail after the burglary charges but was arrested again roughly 14 months later and charged with operating under the influence and possession of a firearm by a prohibited person. Deputy District Attorney Christopher Fernald said Williams had children in the car with him at the time of his OUI arrest but it was unclear on Friday whether Maddox was among them.

According to the murder complaint filed against Jessica Williams, detectives were told that DHHS returned Maddox to her custody on March 8 of this year, one day after Andrew Williams’ arrest. In an interview with detectives, Andrew Williams said he observed multiple bruises on his son’s back and a cut over one eye during his last visit with Maddox in April.

“Andrew stated that he took photos of the injuries to document them so he wouldn’t get blamed,” Detective Hugh Landry said in the complaint. “Andrew asked Jessica about the injuries and Jessica told him that Maddox’s brother … threw a toy at Maddox causing the cut.”

DHHS officials declined to comment Friday on the department’s involvement with Maddox or the Williamses.

“Due to state and federal statutory prohibitions, and to avoid compromising active law enforcement investigations, the department is currently unable to provide further comment on this death,” spokeswoman Jackie Farwell wrote in response to questions about whether DHHS caseworkers had been assigned to Maddox and other topics.

But on Thursday, the department announced it was launching an internal investigation and bringing in an outside consultant to assist in that review following the deaths of Maddox and three other children in Maine in less than a month. Parents have been charged with manslaughter in two of those other three deaths.

DHHS came under intense scrutiny following Marissa Kennedy’s 2018 death in Stockton Springs and the death of 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset several months earlier. In both cases, the girls died after prolonged, severe abuse at the hands of their parents or guardians even though DHHS caseworkers had been repeatedly involved with both families.

The department made significant changes in the years after those high-profile deaths, including expanding training and hiring about 60 additional staff in the child welfare programs. However, the deaths of Maddox Williams and the other children this month is once again shining a spotlight on the department.

DHHS announced on Thursday that it was bringing in experts with Casey Family Programs – a nonprofit active nationally on child welfare issues – to assist with the latest investigation and to make recommendations for changes. Farwell said Friday that the department is finalizing details with Casey Family Programs, but that DHHS seeks “to begin this work immediately in order to obtain recommendations for potential change as soon as possible.”

The co-chairs of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee welcomed the announcement of the outside review on Friday.

“After four deaths of Maine children 4 years old and younger this month, we agree with Commissioner Lambrew that this is a call to action,” said Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, and Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot. “The first question to ask is: ‘How could these losses have been prevented?’ It is our shared responsibility to find ways our state can improve the safety and well-being of Maine’s children and best work proactively to prevent these kinds of tragedies.”

The investigation into Maddox’s death is still in the early stages. However, the criminal complaint filed against Jessica Williams in Waldo County Superior Court alleges that Williams went to considerable lengths to avoid speaking with police or DHHS in the days after her son’s death, often with the assistance of family or friends.

“State Police at my house DHHS everyone I’m not going home to deal with that on top of this,” Williams reportedly texted an acquaintance on the evening of her son’s death. “No I didn’t kill my son,” Williams also reportedly texted the friend, who gave her a ride away from her Stockton Springs home but originally denied doing so to police.

Maddox Williams Photo from the #justiceformaddox GoFundMe page

Williams and her mother, Sherry Johnson, brought Maddox to Waldo County General Hospital on Sunday afternoon. Johnson told police that the boy was conscious and talking on the way to the hospital but stopped breathing around the time that they pulled into the parking lot.

Hospital crews reportedly attempted to resuscitate Maddox for about an hour before declaring him dead.

Investigators with the Maine State Police Major Crimes Unit were unable to find or speak with Williams for three days after multiple people, including her mother, allegedly told them they did not know her location. Police say that it wasn’t until Wednesday that Johnson acknowledged Williams was inside her Stockton Springs home, according to the complaint.

In statements to police at her mother’s home, Williams said Maddox was outside playing that day when her daughter came in to say “he had been knocked down by a puppy.” The boy complained of an upset stomach, his mother said, and only picked at a snack. After calling her mother, the pair agreed to take him to the hospital.

Asked about the extent of Maddox’s injuries, Williams “stated she had no idea how he would have received them,” according to the state police document.

“Jessica stated that Maddox did have a lot of bruises because he bruised very easily and her kids play wild and crazy,” Detective Landry wrote.

Maddox’s father, Andrew Williams, is still incarcerated at the Knox County Jail.

Jessica Williams has at least three other children, ages 8, 4 and 2 and the father, identified as Jason Trefethen, lives on a camper on the same property as Jessica Williams. Bail conditions prohibit Trefethen from entering her residence or having any contact with her except to facilitate child care or to pick up the children.

In the complaint, Trefethen reportedly told detectives that Williams asked him to watch the kids on Sunday. He told police that when he went inside the home, he observed that Maddox was “sitting with a blank stare and slumped over” so he told her to take him to the hospital.

Courier-Gazette Staff Writer Stephen Betts contributed to this report.

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