Multiple pairs of children's shoes sit on a family's kitchen floor. Maine DHHS said it will bring in a national group to help it investigate the deaths of four children under four in the past month. Credit: BDN file photo

Maine will bring in a national organization to help it investigate the deaths of four children under the age of 4 within the past month. Parents are charged in three of those children’s killings. In the fourth, the child died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The state Department of Health and Human Services will look to the organization, Casey Family Programs, to evaluate its child safety policies and offer policy recommendations.

The department’s Thursday announcement follows the deaths of a 6-week-old infant in Brewer on May 31, a 3-year-old girl in Old Town on June 6, a child in Temple on June 17 and the death on Sunday of 3-year-old Maddox Williams in Waldo County.

Maddox Williams’ mother, Jessica Williams, was arrested Wednesday and charged with murder.

In Brewer, the 6-week-old infant was shaken to death, according to prosecutors, and the boy’s 36-year-old father, Ronald Harding, is charged with manslaughter.

In Old Town, Hillary Goding is charged with manslaughter in the death of her daughter, Hailey Anne Goding.

In Temple, the child died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Maine DHHS has not confirmed what if any involvement it had with the families prior to the children’s deaths.

The investigation from Casey Family Programs, a national foundation focused on reducing the need for foster care, comes three years after the killings of two girls at the hands of their caregivers focused intense scrutiny on the state’s child welfare program.

In the months following those killings, including the beating death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs in February 2018, DHHS introduced what caseworkers described as a flurry of policy changes that added paperwork and led to the placement of more children in foster care. Often, those policies would end just as quickly as they were introduced, the caseworkers told the Bangor Daily News in 2018.

In recent years, the state has increased the number of child welfare caseworkers, and a DHHS spokesperson said recently that turnover has fallen among caseworkers.

However, Maine’s child welfare ombudsman last year said child welfare caseworkers continued to struggle with deciding whether children were safe during their initial investigations into reports of abuse and neglect. They also struggled with deciding whether children in state custody should be returned to their parents.

The ombudsman, Christine Alberi, recommended more “practical, ongoing training” for child welfare caseworkers. She recommended training in particular for caseworkers’ supervisors.

Alberi reviewed 82 cases last year and disagreed with DHHS’ decisions in 28 initial investigations and 20 instances involving decisions over reunifying children with their parents.