Three-year-old Maddox Williams is shown in an undated family photograph. His mother is charged in his death last month. The boy's death was one of four in Maine last month of young children that have focused new attention on the state's child welfare system. Credit: Courtesy of GoFundMe/#justiceformaddox

It was June 9, and news had broken over the past week that two children had been killed — a 6-week-old boy from Brewer and 3-year-old girl from Old Town — and their parents had been charged in their deaths.

Maine’s independent child welfare watchdog sought information about the children from the state’s Office of Child and Family Services, which oversees the child welfare system. Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi wanted to know what, if any, involvement the system had with either of the families so she could investigate their cases and the state’s handling of them.

State law says the ombudsman should have access to such information, and she’s required to keep it confidential.

But Todd Landry, the Office of Child and Family Services’ director, replied that he would need to check with the Maine attorney general’s office and the state’s chief homicide prosecutor, citing the active criminal investigations. Then, on June 18, he denied the request for information, saying its release to Alberi — who would have to keep it confidential — would interfere with criminal investigations if it “entered the public domain.”

He suggested the topic for discussion at a future meeting. By then, a third child had died, this one of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The state has since agreed to cooperate with Alberi, but the initial reluctance to provide information highlights the frustration Alberi, lawmakers and others have voiced recently as the state looks for answers to how a spate of young children’s deaths last month occurred. Two members of the ombudsman’s board of directors resigned recently, speaking out about what they characterized as the Department of Health and Human Services’ resistance to external review and the ombudsman’s findings in past investigations and reports.

The email exchange from last month between Alberi and Landry over the release of information is an example of why the board members found themselves frustrated. DHHS provided the full back-and-forth to the Bangor Daily News in response to questions about the department’s interactions with Alberi.

“I mean, that was really absurd,” Ally Keppel, one of the ombudsman board members who resigned, said of the email exchange. Landry “knows better, he’s a smart man.”

On June 22, Alberi pushed back, saying her reviews of the killings of 4-year-old Kendall Chick in 2017 and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in 2018 occurred while legal proceedings were still happening.

“You can … trust that I will not release the confidential reports to anyone, or discuss them,” she said, noting that her reports on the Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy cases had never been publicly disseminated.

In fact, she lamented that few within DHHS appeared to have ever read her reports on those two high-profile cases that focused intense scrutiny on Maine’s child welfare system, prompting a flurry of policy changes and the hiring of dozens of new staff members.

“I do not believe most people within OCFS have ever seen the reports or the recommendations from them, which is a shame, as they could be valuable learning tools for caseworkers,” Alberi wrote. “…I don’t think we have to worry about any information getting into the public domain.”

By the time Alberi’s exchange with Landry concluded, a fourth child had been killed. Jessica Trefethen is charged with murder in the June 20 death of her son, 3-year-old Maddox Williams, in Stockton Springs. An autopsy showed the boy had suffered a fractured spine, bruises on his arms, legs, belly and head, bleeding in his brain, a ruptured bowel and other injuries. Police had alerted DHHS to the boy’s potential neglect at least twice, and DHHS had placed Maddox with his mother only in March after his father was arrested, according to a police affidavit.

DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell said this week that the department would provide as much information as possible to Alberi and supports her review of child welfare cases.

She pushed back against the idea the office denied Alberi information, saying checking with legal counsel was standard practice. The state agreed to supply Alberi with information — if it had any, as the state still has not confirmed the families’ involvement with child welfare — less than a week after her last email, Farwell said. The ombudsman is now investigating three of the four June child deaths.

Keppel and Allie McCormack, two of the longest-serving members of the ombudsman’s board of directors, said in their resignation letter that they were frustrated by a lack of changes in the child welfare system and argued the state has resisted turning over information to Alberi or informing her of child deaths.

“It just didn’t seem like the time we were putting in had any effect,” McCormack said.

Alberi herself has expressed frustrations with the department recently. She told the Legislature’s government oversight panel last week that collaboration between her office and child welfare has been “less than I would like” and that her program needs more staff to be more effective. She argued in her recent annual report that child welfare workers struggle to accurately decide when children will be safe, and she recommended more training, especially for casework supervisors.

Alberi declined to comment on the email or the two resignations beyond saying she was grateful for McCormack and Keppel’s work.

The ombudsman program, a nonprofit, has roots in a 1987 law establishing a team meant to investigate out-of-home child abuse. The state appears to have stopped funding it in 1993, according to a 1999 task force dedicated to studying the need for the program, but a push to revive it came in 2001 in response to the death of 5-year-old Logan Marr at the hands of a foster parent.

The state contracts with the ombudsman to provide oversight of the child welfare system, including investigating welfare cases, answering inquiries from parents and making referrals.

The ombudsman’s board of directors meets quarterly with Alberi to discuss case reviews and the program’s budget, McCormack said.

Those meetings started happening biweekly after the cluster of deaths — meetings that were “incredibly disheartening” as it appeared Alberi was being ignored, he said. Both Keppel and McCormack said the state needs to increase staffing and make the ombudsman an appointed role to increase its effectiveness.