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/provider-resources/reporting-suspected-child-abuse-and-neglect.
Although the state department responsible for child welfare was cleared of wrongdoing in the beating death of 3-year-old Maddox Williams, one of its offices failed to interview a family member who could have given earlier insight into whether the boy was at risk, according to an oversight agency.
Maddox Williams died in June 2021 of battered child syndrome.
A new report from the government agency that oversees all state agencies in Maine cleared the Department of Health and Human Services on Friday.
But the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability found that the Office of Child and Family Services within the Department of Health and Humans Services neglected to interview the father of Jessica Trefethen’s oldest child, with whom the teenager lives. That interview might have given case workers better insight into whether Maddox Williams was at risk or not, the report said.
The girl testified at her mother’s murder trial that she had seen Trefethen “throw” the boy out of a motel bathroom when the family was vacationing and hit him in the mouth with the back of her hand. The boy was missing teeth when he was killed.
The report concluded that “at no point during this investigation — nor during any of her prior [Child Protective Service] involvement — did a caseworker find or was provided with any evidence that Ms. Trefethen posed a threat of physical abuse to her children.” Case workers also were involved with the family due to Williams’ arrest in March 2021.
Under Maine law, the reunification of families, when at all possible, is the goal of the work done by Child Protective Services.
OPEGA’s report on Maddox William’s death is the second 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.
The first involved the death of a 3-year-old girl in Old Town, who died in June 2021 after she ingested her mother’s fentanyl. In February, OPEGA cleared DHHS of any wrongdoing in her case.
Peter Schleck, the director of OPEGA, told members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee that Maddox Williams and his family’s involvement with the department “is complicated and characterized by multiple children, relationships, reports, investigations and court proceedings during a history of child protective services involvement that preceded Maddox’s birth.”
He described case workers’ multiple involvements with Trefethen before Maddox Williams was born that included the removal of older children from her home when one ingested her methadone. Trefethen was not cooperative, but instead “began to exhibit volatile and hostile behavior toward the caseworker, GAL, foster parents, and visitation supervisors” during the reunification efforts,” the report said.
Maddox Williams was born prematurely on Jan. 9, 2018, at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, according to trial testimony. He left the hospital two months later and lived with his father until he was 2 years old, his paternal grandmother, Victoria Vose, 53, of Warren told jurors. He went to live with his mother after his father, Andrew Williams, 30, of Warren was arrested on March 7, 2021.
Vose, who has advocated for changes within DHHS’ child protection division, never saw her grandson alive again.
Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Kennebec and Senate chair of the Government Oversight Committee, pointed to Tefethen’s limited involvement with her son that is outlined in the report. Hickman said that should have been a warning to the department that she was uninterested in her child.
“According to [department] records, Ms. Trefethen had not visited with Maddox, attended only two of his medical appointments, and failed to actively participate in reunification services with him during a nearly two-year span,” it said.
Trefethen claimed that Andrew Williams limited her access to the boy rather than her desire to spend time with him, the report said.
Schleck told the committee in February that the reports on the cases could be a vehicle for future conversations about whether laws, policies and procedures need to be changed, pointing out that a particular challenge 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 then and repeated on Friday.
The report concluded that there is a disconnect between what the public expects and what the department can do legally within Maine’s child welfare system.
“The field of child welfare exists as an array of competing interests that strike a delicate balance. Not everyone will agree as to what best serves a child, but it is a topic worthy of further discussion,” the report said.
The department has not sought any legal changes this year from lawmakers, Schleck said.
Last year, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee requested that the independent investigative agency look into DHHS’ involvement with the families of 6-week-old Jaden Harding of Brewer, 3-year-old Hailey Goding of Old Town and 1-month-old Sylus Melvin of Milo.
All four children died in the summer of 2021, and in all four cases a parent was charged with murder or manslaughter in connection with the child’s death. OPEGA can not complete its investigations until the criminal cases have concluded.
Ronald Harding, 38, of Brewer was convicted last month by a Penobscot County jury of manslaughter in the death of his son. He remains at the Penobscot County Jail awaiting sentencing.
Hillary Goding, 30, of Old Town pleaded guilty last fall to manslaughter in the death of her daughter. She was sentenced to 26 years in prison with all 19 years suspended, followed by six years of probation.
The mother of Maddox Williams, Jessica Trefethen, 37, of Stockton Springs was convicted of murder by a Waldo County jury in October. She and Goding are incarcerated at the Maine Correctional Institute in Windham.
Reginald Melvin, 29, of Milo is tentatively scheduled to be tried in August before a Piscataquis County jury in Dover-Foxcroft. He has pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of his son. Melvin is being held without bail at the Piscataquis County Jail.