BELFAST, Maine — Legislators and others involved in an ongoing examination of Maine’s child welfare system are closely watching the murder trial of Jessica Trefethen, which began Wednesday at the Waldo County courthouse.
Trefethen was charged with the depraved indifference murder of her 3-year-old son, Maddox Williams, in June 2021.
The death was one of three involving children in which a parent was accused in June 2021, and it renewed a spotlight on Maine Department of Health and Human Services and problems with its child welfare system. That’s something that officials want to change — permanently this time.
“There’s a pretty standard pattern … what happens is departments get defunded, then a tragedy happens, and then there’s a bunch of attention that comes to it, and then people move on … and then nothing was changed,” said state Sen. Chip Curry, D-Belfast, who represents Waldo County. “My concern is to make sure that we’re not moving on without fixing the problem.”
But lawmakers had already focused their attention on the state’s child welfare system, years before the 2021 child deaths.
Policymakers directed more funds to the state’s child welfare system following two high-profile child deaths in 2018. The funds enabled DHHS to hire more caseworkers, supervisors and case aides while boosting workers’ pay.
Despite that increased funding, child welfare ombudsman Christine Alberi, the system’s independent watchdog, has since said in multiple reports that caseworkers and supervisors still need more training. She reported child welfare workers struggled early in cases to determine when children were in danger.
The state also needs more robust preventive services that would reduce families’ need for intervention from Child Protective Services, Alberi said.
Curry supports that shift to prevention over intervention.
Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability Director Peter Schleck and state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, sat in for the first day of the trial when opening arguments and emotional testimony from family members, a nurse and law enforcement were heard. Curry hopes to attend in the coming days.
Diamond has publicly supported the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee in its investigation of “DHHS’s extremely concerning failure to meet federal child safety standards,” he said in a July statement.
Schleck said he was at the trial to collect facts “from the standpoint of where and when the agency intersected with the lives of these children and come to some conclusions about those interactions.”
Trefethen’s son is one of four children at the center of the conversation.
“I want to make sure that we’re fixing the problems [within child protective services] and we’re also creating a system that can endure long-term and meet the need,” Curry said. “[The purpose is] to look at ‘how do these systems yield these terrible results?’”
Curry was one of the legislators who first requested the committee investigate DHHS’s Office of Child and Family Services, which includes Child Protective Services, in 2021, soon after Maddox died.
The current inquiry is not OPEGA’s first into the Child Protective Services system.
OPEGA issued a report in 2018 addressing the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs and 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasett within the context of how DHHS handled and responded to “potential child abuse and neglect reports,” the report stated.
Schleck said the current inquiry is effectively the same as the previous. The committee directed OPEGA to conduct the current review with the same “scope and methodology” used in the first one, he said.
Curry said DHHS needs solutions to ensure Child Protective Services is fully staffed with experienced case workers, fosters “a culture where staff stay,” and has the time and resources to do “thorough evaluations.”
DHHS also needs to be more transparent with the Government Oversight Committee, Curry said.
The committee voted Sept. 21 to subpoena DHHS for the records of Maddox and the three other children who passed away in summer 2021 — six-week-old Jaden Harding, one-month old Sylus Melvin and three-year-old Hailey Goding.
DHHS, for its part, does not want to turn over the confidential records because that could “undermine” ongoing investigations and criminal prosecutions, Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew wrote in a letter to Government Oversight Committee Chair Nate Libby.
The investigative staff at OPEGA, on the other hand, now has full access to those documents “as permitted under state and federal laws,” Lambrew said. OPEGA is legally barred from sharing those documents with the lawmakers who sit on the Government Oversight Committee.
The department does, customarily, release information on child welfare cases once judicial proceedings are complete. A summary of Marissa Kennedy’s files was released by DHHS in early 2020, following her mother Sharon’s sentencing.
Curry understands DHHS’s “good intent” and its need for confidentiality to protect families and children.
“But I think there’s a better balance that can be made … because these are real public-policy issues that need to be dealt with,” Curry said.