A vigil is held for Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs in 2018. The 10-year-old's February 2018 beating death by her mother and stepfather in the family's Stockton Springs condominium spurred a period of intense review for Maine's child welfare system. Credit: BDN file photo

If you are concerned about a child being neglected or abused, call Maine’s 24-hour hotline at 800-452-1999 or 711 to speak with a child protective specialist. Calls may be made anonymously. For more information, visit maine.gov/dhhs/ocfs/cw/reporting_abuse.

A spate of young children’s deaths over the past month is focusing a fresh round of scrutiny on a state child welfare system that was also under the microscope three years ago following the murders of two young girls at the hands of their caregivers.

Such reviews, followed by policy changes, are a common response to high-profile deaths of children, according to child welfare experts. Some in child welfare have likened the cycle to a pendulum swinging between a focus on removing children from their parents’ homes and keeping them with parents.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday said it would bring in Casey Family Programs, a national organization focused on children’s safety and reducing the need for foster care, to investigate the deaths of four children under age 4 within the past month and develop policy recommendations. The state’s child welfare ombudsman, Christine Alberi, said her office planned to independently investigate three of those four deaths as part of its outside oversight of the child welfare system. Police investigations are happening as well.

Over the past month, a 6-week-old infant in Brewer was allegedly shaken to death by his father, Ronald Harding; an Old Town mother, Hillary Goding, has been charged with manslaughter in the death of her 3-year-old daughter, Hailey; and Jessica Trefethen was arrested Wednesday and charged with murder in the death of her 3-year-old son Maddox Williams last weekend in Stockton Springs.

Maine DHHS said it would also investigate the June 17 death of a child in Temple who appeared to have died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The department’s announcement preceded the news Thursday night that a 4-year-old Windham boy had been found dead, though police have not said foul play is involved.

“When something like this happens, there’s a reaction. People want something done,” said Shawn Yardley, a former Child Protective Services supervisor and CEO of Community Concepts, a Lewiston social services agency. “Even if it’s in another state, the response is to focus on what to do with the opportunity now that there’s attention on this issue.”  

The department has declined to say if any of the families whose children have died were known to the child welfare system, citing legal requirements and the ongoing criminal investigations. However, DHHS caseworkers appeared to have dealings with Maddox Williams and his parents.

Maddox spent the first two years of his life living with his father, 30-year-old Andrew Williams, before the father allegedly brought Maddox, then 2, with him when he burglarized a home in Rockland in January of last year. Police called DHHS to take care of Maddox after his father’s arrest.

Then, earlier this year, DHHS returned Maddox to his mother’s custody on March 8, the day after Williams was arrested again, according to the criminal complaint against Trefethen.

The number of children’s deaths in the past month is “unprecedented in Maine” and deserves high-level review to determine the children’s involvement with DHHS and other social services, said Michael Petit, a former state human services commissioner under Gov. Joseph Brennan from 1979 to 1987.

“Kids are frequently unknown to the social services network if they’re not in school yet,” he said. “If the parents are holding them back from Head Start or day care or home visiting, it might mean that nobody knew [about the kids’ family situation] and so the question becomes, ‘How do we make sure that in the future, somebody knows?’”

In 2019, 18 children who had some prior contact with DHHS died, according to the department. In addition, that year a 14-month-old from Presque Isle with no prior involvement with DHHS was killed by his father, who then killed himself.

Last year, 10 children with some level of child welfare involvement died, and another whose family had no DHHS involvement died.

Most of those deaths were ruled accidents, with many of them the result of parents and children co-sleeping, according to DHHS. Some were the result of natural causes, and five were teenagers who died by suicide.

When a high-profile child death happens, policymakers often push to separate kids from their biological families and place them with foster families, said Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

Following the December 2017 murder of 4-year-old Kendall Chick in Wiscasset and the February 2018 beating death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs, lawmakers allocated funding for more child welfare caseworkers, but also passed a policy change to move the state away from prioritizing the reunification of children with their parents.

The number of children being separated from their parents began to rise following Marissa Kennedy’s death, and the state received more reports of suspected child abuse and neglect.

The number of children in foster care also rose during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic last year before declining again as DHHS has said it is trying to find permanent placements for children.

An emphasis on separation burdens caseworkers and leaves them less time to effectively screen for children in legitimate danger, Wexler said.

“Child abuse fatalities are as rare as they are horrifying,” he said. “It’s like finding needles in a haystack. Why would you increase the size of the haystack?”

Caseworkers told the Bangor Daily News last year that the changes made in the aftermath of Marissa Kennedy’s and Kendall Chick’s deaths left them “drowning” despite some improvements, including the hiring and training of new caseworkers. Federal data  show that while Maine grew its ranks of caseworkers after 2018, the workload for each caseworker stayed about the same as the system investigated more families.

One high-profile child death that didn’t spur Maine’s child welfare system toward more separations was the 2001 death of 5-year-old Logan Marr at the hands of her foster mother.

In response, Maine began reducing the number of children in foster care, and placing more children who couldn’t be with their parents with relatives rather than with foster parents they didn’t know. Over time, Maine’s child welfare system came to be viewed as a national model.

“We’ve forgotten the legacy of Logan Marr,” Wexler said.

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Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.