The Maine Department of Health and Human Services offices on State Street in Augusta is seen in this December 2017 file photo. Credit: Darren Fishell / BDN

Despite multiple interactions and investigations launched into an Old Town woman’s care of her 3-year-old child by the state agency charged with protecting the welfare of Maine children, the girl accessed her mother’s fentanyl and died.

A new report from the government agency that oversees all state agencies in Maine cleared the Department of Health and Human Services of wrongdoing in the death of 3-year-old Hailey Goding, who died in June 2021 after she ingested her mother’s fentanyl.

The  report issued Friday by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability determined that DHHS officials did all they legally could to protect Hailey, but that wasn’t enough.

Hailey Goding was one of three children in the Bangor region allegedly killed by a parent that month, prompting a fresh round of scrutiny of the state’s child welfare system and an outside investigation into the deaths.

An autopsy revealed that Hailey died from a brain injury that was consistent with an opioid overdose, and an initial urine screen at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center showed that the 3-year-old had fentanyl in her system, according to Maine State Police Detective Dana Austin’s affidavit for the arrest of Hailey mother, Hillary Goding. It said that Hailey had ingested drugs about a year earlier as well.

OPEGA’s report outlined every interaction on record between Hillary Goding and the Maine child welfare system, which included a 2020 instance in which Hailey was found to have ingested fentanyl.

DHHS identified five specific times in which the agency either investigated or received reports that Hillary Goding threatened the safety of a child, according to the report.

Multiple investigations, no definitive conclusions

The department’s first touchpoint with Hillary Goding was in January 2018, right after Hailey was born. Hillary had tested positive for marijuana and oxycodone when she was admitted to the hospital for Hailey’s birth, according to the OPEGA report. Hillary Goding was referred to the CradleMe Program, which provides support to birthing families.

In September that same year, DHHS received a report that claimed Hillary Goding had left a 5-year-old she was babysitting alone on a beach while she went to the parking lot to “change Hailey,” according to the report. Goding told DHHS officials that she was no more than six feet away from the other child. The investigation was closed and the incident was considered unsubstantiated, according to the OPEGA report.

About two years later, in January 2020, DHHS received a report that the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency was investigating a tip that Hillary Goding had used drugs in her car while Hailey was in the back seat. The subsequent law enforcement investigation found no need for action or further investigation, according to the report.

In May 2020, DHHS received another report regarding Hailey and Hillary Goding, from a medical provider at an emergency room when Hailey was brought in after she had put a piece of tinfoil she reportedly had found on a playground in her mouth, according to the OPEGA report.

An initial drug screen showed cocaine in Hailey’s system, then more advanced testing found fentanyl in Hailey’s system as well as in Hillary’s. An investigation could not prove that the drugs in Hailey’s system came from her mother, the report said.

“At even the earliest moments in this particular investigation, OCFS was without clear evidence of an established safety threat,” the report said. “Lacking that threat, OCFS triaged the situation and endeavored to enter into a safety plan with Ms. Goding to manage child welfare concerns and a lack of evidence.”

As part of that, Hillary Goding went through mental health treatment, but the case was closed with no definitive evidence of abuse or neglect, according to the OPEGA report.  

Just months before Hailey died, an anonymous referral sent to DHHS said that Hillary Goding had threatened her mother with a firearm with Hailey present in the home in November 2020. The investigation faltered when Hillary Goding refused to participate and eventually the case was dropped.

The police account of Hailey’s death begins just before 4 a.m. on Friday, June 4, when surveillance footage from cameras in Goding’s Center Street apartment building picked up the sound of a woman crying inside Goding’s apartment, then showed Goding carrying Hailey in the hallway moments later.

Hailey appeared “limp,” according to the affidavit.

Goding did not call 911 until nearly 20 hours later, at 10:48 p.m. on June 4, after security cameras captured Goding walking in and out of the apartment several more times, with Hailey appearing “lifeless,” according to police.

Old Town Police Officer Alan Reese, who was first on the scene, arrived at 10:52 p.m and observed that Hailey was lying on a bedroom floor and had no pulse.

An Old Town Fire Department member tried for 15-20 minutes to revive the child.

Hillary Goding told police she believed her daughter consumed heroin after she got into a plastic straw that Goding had used to ingest the drug, which is often cut with the more potent fentanyl. Her daughter’s behavior then began to change, and she put the 3-year-old to bed early despite hearing that her daughter’s breathing had become “raspy,” according to the affidavit.

Hailey was pronounced dead on June 6, 2021, at 10:04 a.m.

‘Where did it go wrong?’

The OPEGA report, presented to the Maine Legislature’s government oversight committee Friday, prompted lawmakers such as Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, to question how, if DHHS had done all of the right things, Hailey Goding was killed.

“I want to know what we can do as legislators and I don’t want to create bad laws. I understand all of those things. What I need to know is what we can do to make this better,” he said during the committee’s meeting Friday. “I just need to know where we went wrong because we did go wrong. We went wrong. Hailey’s dead.”  

Peter Schleck, the director of OPEGA, said although this is just one case, it could be a vehicle for future conversations around where laws, policies and procedures may need to change. One area that is particularly challenging is regarding parent and guardian participation in DHHS investigations.

If there isn’t enough evidence for DHHS to remove a child from a situation immediately, the parents or guardians do not have to participate in the investigation, unless ordered by a court, he said.

“They can say no I will not sign a release for my records. No, I will not take a drug test. Those might be areas where the committee and the department might wish to discuss,” Schleck said.

OPEGA’s report on Hailey Goding’s death is the first of four expected to be delivered to the government oversight committee, which will continue to look into what changes can and should be made to the state’s child welfare system.

On the court side of Hailey’s case, her mother pleaded guilty in September to manslaughter, a Class A felony crime, and violating her bail conditions, a Class C felony crime. In exchange for her pleas, the Maine Attorney General’s Office dismissed a murder charge.

Hillary Goding, 30, was sentenced to 26 years in prison with all but 19 years suspended in November.

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...