A vigil remembering the life of Marissa Kennedy was held in Stockton Springs in March 2018. Credit: Emily Burnham

Since January 2017, at least 22 children between the ages of 20 days and 10 years old died after the state’s child protective services system received concerns about abuse or neglect involving their families, according to data from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Four of those deaths were classified as homicides and 13 were ruled accidents — eight of which were co-sleeping incidents. At least eight of the children died with open abuse or neglect cases before the department, and their families had gone through as many as eight reviews before the death of the children. Seven cases had been opened 69 or fewer days before the deaths.

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The data, which were provided upon request to the Bangor Daily News, don’t include identifiable information because of state confidentiality laws, but it provides an accounting of when reports were fielded by the state and the steps that caseworkers decided to take.

Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi said she hadn’t seen the data until Wednesday. She said she was alarmed by the number of co-sleeping deaths and the cases with extensive department involvement and multiple determinations of past substantiated abuse in the families, particularly in cases that were open when the child died.

“There is no way to know whether DHHS missed something or not in these cases that could have prevented a death, even if there was an open case,” Alberi said. “A significant DHHS history increases the risk to the child, but without specific information, it is impossible to know.”

[Watchdog faults DHHS for ‘poor job performance’ in case of Maine child’s death]

She plans to ask the department for more information, including how much substance use played a role in the co-sleeping deaths.

Though most of the children in these families were suspected of being — or found to have been — victims of abuse or neglect, caseworkers determined abuse to have been factors in only eight of the deaths. Many of the families in which a death occurred had been involved with state caseworkers well before the birth of a child who later died.

One case involving the death of a 1-year-old boy in May 2017 showed department involvement with his family dating back six years. At the time of his death — the cause of which was logged as “undetermined” — at least two assessments of the eight for his family dating back to 2011 had found substantiated evidence of neglect by his mother. An assessment had been opened into more allegations in early March, roughly a month before he died.

[Maine child welfare workers are overworked and don’t see things getting better, report says]

In April 2018, a 5-month-old boy died in what was deemed to be an accident after at least nine reports were made about his family dating back six years. One assessment in 2015 — before the 5-month-old was born — found evidence of neglect by both parents. The department worked with the couple to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment, and the case was closed in June 2016. Three reports were made while the child was alive, and an investigation was opened March 21, roughly a month before his death. Parental neglect was found to have been a factor in his death.

The information provided by DHHS includes four classified as homicides. They are Marissa Kennedy, 10, last February in Stockton Springs; Kendall Chick, 4, in Wiscasset in December 2017; Jaxson Hopkins, 7 weeks old, in Troy in January 2017; and 14-month-old Quinten Leavitt in March 2019.

Information was redacted in two cases due to ongoing trials in the cases of Kennedy and Chick. Police say Kennedy was killed by her mother and stepfather and Chick by her primary caretaker. Hopkins’ mother was convicted of manslaughter in 2017 and police say Leavitt’s father killed the infant before taking his own life.

[A consultant hired to review Maine’s child welfare system found these flaws]

The deaths of Kennedy and Chick prompted legislative investigations into their deaths and into the child welfare system, changes to the system by lawmakers and a contracted report from the department. After reviewing eight of the department’s most severe child welfare cases involving chronic abuse or child death, the latter report found a “noted lack of urgency” and a need to better discern “high-risk” cases as two areas in need of improvement.

Per department policy, when a credible report is filed — often by a mandated reporter — it triggers a caseworker assessment of the situation. If there is no reason to believe abuse or neglect is taking place upon review, the case remains closed.

If evidence is substantiated, the department intervenes and typically crafts a support plan with the family that could include mental health or substance use treatment, supervised visitation and domestic violence support services.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.