A picture hangs in memory of Marissa Kennedy at a vigil held in Stockton Springs in March 2018. Credit: Emily Burnham

A social worker visited Marissa Kennedy, her mother and stepfather at their Stockton Springs home two days before the 10-year-old’s death in February 2018. Suzanne Webber noticed bruises on the girl and said Marissa Kennedy didn’t talk. Her “eyes were opening and closing” during the visit, Webber said.

The social worker’s testimony Monday in the murder trial of Sharon Carrillo, who is accused along with her husband, Julio Carrillo, of beating her daughter to death, offered a snapshot of the Carrillo family’s experience with Maine’s child welfare program, which came under intense scrutiny following Kennedy’s death.

Webber worked for a Rockland-based social services agency, Home Counselors Inc., that was the state’s designated “alternative response” provider in the midcoast region — covering Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties.

That the Carrillo family ended up working with an alternative response agency is a sign the Maine Department of Health and Human Services didn’t think the family’s children faced a major risk of continued abuse. But soon after Kennedy was killed, DHHS stopped referring cases to Home Counselors Inc. and made alternative response a major part of its internal investigation into the 10-year-old’s death.

Alternative response got its start in Maine in the 1990s as a less intrusive approach to handling some lower-risk child welfare cases.

The idea was that it would be a more collaborative approach to improving children’s safety in lower-risk cases than a full-fledged investigation by a Child Protective Services worker that could result in children being taken from their parents’ home.

In alternative response cases, a social worker from a contracted agency — not a Maine DHHS employee — works with parents and children to try to make their home safer and connect parents with needed services such as substance use treatment. The social worker might also work with the family to assemble a support system of family and friends to rely on in difficult times.

The service, which generally lasts about four months, is voluntary.

Sometimes, the department immediately refers a case to an alternative response contractor after it receives a call from someone who suspects child abuse or neglect, and sometimes the referral comes after a DHHS worker first investigates the claim.

The alternative response providers aren’t tasked with investigating claims of abuse.

While on the stand Monday, Webber told Sharon Carrillo’s defense attorney that she hadn’t fact-checked a claim from Julio Carrillo that his stepdaughter was harming herself. That highlights a key difference between the job of an alternative response worker and a Child Protective Services investigator: The alternative response worker’s job isn’t to investigate claims of abuse to determine whether it happened.

However, if a social worker suspects that child abuse is occurring, he or she has an obligation under state law to report it to DHHS, which can trigger an investigation by a department caseworker.

DHHS tried to have department caseworkers intervene in fewer cases in the months leading up to Kennedy’s death.

In May 2017 — about nine months before Kennedy’s death — workers at the state’s child abuse reporting hotline who make preliminary recommendations on whether caseworkers should follow up with families started using a new tool aimed at having child protective caseworkers intervene in fewer cases.

An outside firm had concluded that DHHS “was serving families who don’t meet the threshold for the law for child welfare intervention,” according to June 2017 meeting minutes of the state’s Child Welfare Advisory Panel. In response, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration had adopted the new tool, called Structured Decision Making.

Indeed, the number of cases the state referred to alternative response during the LePage administration rose between 2014 and 2017, while the number of cases DHHS workers investigated fell between 2014 and 2016.

The change prompted concerns among social workers and others who regularly reported suspected abuse to the state that Child Protective Services workers were missing credible reports of parents or caregivers abusing children.

Alternative response quickly became the focus of DHHS’ internal investigation into Kennedy’s death.

On March 12, 2018 — about two weeks after Kennedy’s death — Maine DHHS asked the four alternative response contractors in the state to comb through their records dating back to the previous summer and re-report many of the families they had worked with to the state’s child abuse reporting hotline.

The department wanted the names of families with whom caseworkers had never made contact, who refused services from the social workers or who stopped working with the social workers before their abuse and neglect cases were closed.

The reports to the state’s child abuse reporting hotline could then trigger new investigations into the original reports of suspected child abuse or neglect that resulted in families being referred to alternative response. A DHHS spokeswoman at the time said the new requirement would ensure “that these at-risk children don’t fall through the cracks.”

In the region of the state where Kennedy lived, the state stopped referring cases to alternative response altogether, said DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell.

That meant Home Counselors Inc., the agency where Webber worked, received no referrals and no payment. The organization’s contract with the state ended in December 2018. Today, the Bangor-based agency Community Care is the alternative response provider in the midcoast region, along with much of the rest of the state, Farwell said.

The full course of events that resulted in the Carrillo family’s referral to Home Counselors Inc. isn’t yet public knowledge. But Farwell said the agency will release a case summary either after Sharon Carrillo’s sentencing or acquittal.