Family members of a 3-year-old Old Town girl who died after ingesting her mother’s drugs said Friday that Maine’s child welfare agency repeatedly disregarded their warnings and should have taken the child from her mother.

“Had the state or DHHS just called us, listened to us, helped us, done anything different, not closed this case so quickly, she would still be alive today,” Alison Porter of Lincoln told lawmakers about her grand-niece, Hailey Goding.

The 3-year-old died in a Bangor hospital in June 2021 of an apparent fentanyl overdose. It was the second time Hailey had been taken to the hospital for fentanyl. And Porter told state lawmakers on Friday that the Department of Health and Human Services was repeatedly warned at other times that Hailey’s mother, Hillary Goding, had a drug problem.

“The family called, friends called but we never got a call,” Porter said. “We never got anything in the mail and nobody ever reached out to us to say, ‘Can she stay with you? What is your feeling about the environment that she’s in?’”

Last month, the Legislature’s watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, said its investigation did not find any major faults in how DHHS responded to the multiple concerns raised about Hillary’s care for her daughter.

“It is understandable that the death of a child with any degree of child protective services involvement may prompt reasonable observers to question whether the services provided were adequate, and, more acutely, whether any safety decisions were sound,” reads the OPEGA report. “At the same time, OPEGA conducted our work mindful of the risks of so-called outcome bias, i.e., that a tragic outcome is itself somehow evidence of deficient performance by child protective services. In the first case at hand, many people, conditions, and potential causes outside the control of OCFS impacted the course of events, and child protective services professionals reached a number of safety decisions under often challenging circumstances.”

The report on Hailey Goding is on the first of four investigations by OPEGA into the DHHS Office of Child Family Services’ interactions with four children who reportedly died of abuse or neglect over the course of several weeks in the summer of 2021. Those case studies as well as additional reports are likely to influence state lawmakers’ decision on whether to require additional changes at DHHS several years after two other high-profile child deaths prompted changes and reforms at the agency.

But family members of Hailey Goding disagreed with DHHS’s handling of her case.

Hailey’s grandfather, Brian Picciano, said it should have been immediately clear to DHHS that there was a problem when both mother and daughter tested positive for drugs on the day that Hailey was born. A November 2022 DHHS memo summarizing Hailey Goding’s case files states that Hillary Goding tested positive for marijuana and oxycodone that day but does not mention any tests on the newborn.

But Picciano, who told lawmakers that he himself was in long-term recovery from drug use, said it should be clear to DHHS “that she was unfit at that moment to raise that child in the beginning.” Picciano said the mother and daughter lived with he and his ex-wife and that he personally told case workers that Hillary was using drugs. But he speculated that she wasn’t drug tested often enough or with sufficient scrutiny.

“DHS never informed or talked to us about options for taking Hailey Ann,” he said. “We even offered to take Hailey. And they said that as long as Hillary does her program and stays clean, they have no right to take it to court to say that it’s a problem.”

As part of its report, OPEGA recommended that the department establish a “central resource for substance-related questions” to help caseworkers make decisions in situations involving drugs.

Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, said Gov. Janet Mills’ proposed budget also includes additional funding for substance use disorder specialists in each child welfare districts around the state. Landry said peer recovery coaches will also be brought on to work with parents grappling with substance use disorder.

Asked to respond to concerns raised on Friday, Landry said DHHS has significantly the availability and range of drug tests across the state. He also said the office is lengthening the timeframe for case investigations from 30 days to 40 days with a five-day review for supervisors, which he said is in-line with national averages.

“I will say lastly I heard some things that I want to go back and look at and consider more carefully with our staff as a result of some of the things I heard today, and one of those things is … to continue to work on the expertise we have around substance use disorder about testing. We are committed to continue to look at that to see what, if anything, can be done to improve that testing and the availability of that testing as well as any timeframes.”

Hillary Goding pleaded guilty to manslaughter in her daughter’s death and is serving a 19-year sentence.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.