AUGUSTA — A Maine watchdog agency said Wednesday that it found “errors on top of errors” in the state’s handling of child safety investigations involving the family of Jaden Harding, who died when he was 6 weeks old after being physically abused in 2021.

Peter Schleck, director of the Maine Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, criticized the state’s handling of reports of neglect and abuse involving Harding’s older siblings. Harding’s mother, Kayla Hartley, had a history with the state dating to 2014, he said.

Kayla Hartley was not charged in connection with Jaden Harding’s death, but lost custody of her other children, according to a court filing. The infant’s father, Ronald Harding, was accused of violently shaking the infant. He was convicted of manslaughter and was sentenced to prison in September.

Schleck presented his office’s report to the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Wednesday. It is the third of four case reviews ordered by the committee following the deaths of four children in 2021.

“Quantitatively and qualitatively the casework in this report is distinguishable and distinct in its deficiency from the first two,” Schleck said, referring to the two other child death investigations he’s presented to lawmakers. “This case presents numerous examples in which there were errors on top of errors and an ongoing inability by the department to recognize the simple lack of protective capacity from the mother of Jaden Harding.”

The review highlights the department’s struggle to identify and address risks to children – an issue that was flagged in the department’s own federally mandated review, which determined the state was getting worse at preventing repeated mistreatment of children.



State child protection workers had not received any reports of abuse or neglect involving Jaden Harding before his death. But the report presented Wednesday described a “parade of questionable people” involved with Hartley and her other children going back years, including people with substance use issues and histories of domestic violence and sexual assault, along with other indications her children were at risk.

Ronald Harding Courtesy of Penobscot County Jail

Ronald Harding, Jaden’s father, did not have a history with the department and had not been identified as a risk to Hartley’s children. Schleck said OPEGA learned that Harding’s name had been mentioned in a child protective complaint but the complaint was never referred for an investigation. It wasn’t clear what the report was or whether it might have led to an intervention by the state.

“There was something to follow, but it wasn’t followed,” Schleck said.

The oversight committee ordered OPEGA to conduct a review of the department’s actions in connection with four children who died within weeks of each other in the summer of 2021. All of the families had prior involvement with Office of Child and Family Services, which oversees the state’s child welfare program.

The committee on Wednesday also heard more testimony from additional front-line workers, who have been telling lawmakers that high workloads, poor upper management, and a lack of mental health and substance use services is causing a downward spiral in the department.


Stacey Henson-Drake, a child protection caseworker in Lewiston since 2021, said the growing number of vacancies among caseworkers, case aide workers and supervisors are only increasing caseloads and mandatory overtime for remaining workers, who also must supervise children who are living in hotels and hospitals instead of being placed with foster families. It all makes for an impossible job, which makes it harder to retain and recruit workers.


Describing her office as like “a war zone,” Henson-Drake said a lack of communication, support and guidance from upper management is making matters worse. She said 32 of the office’s 73 caseworker positions are vacant, along with six of the district’s case aide positions, which help caseworkers prepare court documents.

“Some of that lack of messaging also contributes to people leaving,” Henson-Drake said, adding that she has great co-workers and supervisors. “It really does feel like we’re on a sinking ship and when you don’t have the chief or the captain saying, ‘Don’t worry. This is what we’re doing to fix this. Hang on tight,’ it’s frightening.”

The GOC grilled Child and Family Services Director Todd Landry last month, with some members warning that they were questioning his leadership.

During the committee hearing Wednesday, Schleck said Hartley’s extensive history with child protective staff should have been a warning flag for the state, which missed several opportunities to intervene.


The department had received repeated reports of domestic violence and sexual abuse of one of the older children by a relative, for example. It does not appear that any of the children were ever taken into state custody. The state cited a lack of evidence and that Hartley appeared to be engaging with support services, although police reported that her mental health worsened in 2020 after the death of a family member.

Schleck said the police report was investigated by a standby caseworker and supervisor, who determined the children were safe because relatives from out-of-state were there to help care for the kids. Hartley was taking her medications as directed, they determined. The case was transferred back to the regular caseworker and supervisor without a plan to follow-up or provide support services once the relatives left.

Schleck said the department should have followed up with Hartley after her family left but never did. “We did not see any evidence that such actions occurred or were even considered,” he said.

Caseworkers told OPEGA that they do not have enough time to conduct thorough background checks of everyone involved in the previous reports and didn’t always have access to complete case files because of their high workloads.


In a written response to the report, Landry acknowledged that “it can sometimes be challenging for staff to gather all the relevant information regarding a family. This can be due to many factors including, but not limited to, reluctance of a family to engage with child protective services and/or provide information, difficulty obtaining information from the source, the volume of information available regarding some families, and the difficulty synthesizing that information to use it effectively when working with the family.”


Schleck said upper management conducted a review of the case and agreed that some missteps were made and steps needed to be taken to address them. But the managers never met with the caseworker handling Jaden’s case to discuss what should have been done differently.

“To this day, there is a caseworker that is working right now who has not been coached on the things that went wrong here,” Schleck said.

Landry, who did not attend the meeting, didn’t challenge that assertion in his written response. And Bobbi Johnson, associate director of child welfare services, would not discuss why management had yet to provide additional training to the caseworker when asked about the finding after the committee hearing.

Schleck said the state also failed to remove someone with a history of committing sexual abuse from the home at a time when the children were reporting physical and sexual abuse.

That error largely resulted from a name change by the relative, who was suspected of abusing one of Hartley’s children. Schleck said staff recorded the relative’s birth name in the case file and a background check did not bring up a history.

But that relative had changed their name after being adopted and a search of that name produced an extensive criminal history, including “multiple domestic violence convictions for threatening, terrorizing and assault, a history of violating conditions of release, probation violations and other offenses.”


“(OCFS staff) explained that, with that information, further investigation and scrutiny of the relative would have been warranted, including a review of the relative’s (child protective) history as an adult,” Schleck said.


The relative’s case record, he said, spanned more than a decade, including a prohibition against having unsupervised contact with a child, a protection from abuse order filed against them,  and accusations of prior sexual abuse of a partner’s children.

Child and Family Services staff said they would have been able to make a finding of neglect against Hartley had they known about that relative’s history, Schleck said.

“Instead,” he said, “the case was closed with no findings as the caseworker did not have any evidence indicating that Ms. Hartley had been abusive or neglectful towards any of her children.”

Schleck also questioned how caseworkers responded to suspected abuse reported by a school official in 2019.


The child had originally told a caseworker during an interview at school that a man living in his home was responsible for injuring his ear, which Schleck said is an indicator of abuse. But the child changed that story when interviewed at home in front of Hartley, saying the injury happened while playing.

OPEGA discovered that the man identified by the child had a history of domestic violence and violated a protection from abuse order. Such a history would warrant a plan to remove the man from the home, Schleck said. But the case was closed without a finding.

Generally, Schleck said caseworkers seemed too focused on specific allegations and missed the bigger picture about Hartley’s apparent inability to protect her children.

The DHHS memo noted that in March 2020, police responded to a report that one of her children was discovered unattended by the side of the road. The state found Hartley had neglected her child by leaving her in the care of an 11-year-old.

“From a comprehensive review … it becomes apparent that Ms. Hartley continued to demonstrate a lack of protective capacity and an inability to keep unsafe people away from her children,” Schleck said.

“OCFS staff indicated that this lack of protective capacity would warrant additional departmental action. However, they also noted that caseworkers generally do not have enough time available to perform the comprehensive review of a family’s history that is necessary to identify such patterns.”

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