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.
A state watchdog agency has found that Maine’s child protective services had multiple interactions with the family of Jaden Harding in the years before he was born, but there were no interactions during the short life of Harding, whose father killed him in spring of 2021 when he was just 6-weeks-old.
For around 10 years before Harding was born, his mother and her relatives had numerous interactions with Maine’s child protective services, and there were two instances in which protection workers made “unsound safety decisions,” according to the report from the Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability, or OPEGA.
Jaden’s father, Ronald Harding of Brewer, did not appear to be a threat to Jaden’s safety before his death, the 65-page report said. But Ronald Harding was ultimately convicted of manslaughter and in September was sentenced to prison for violently shaking Jaden on Memorial Day 2021, resulting in his death one day later.
Jaden’s death was one of several high-profile child abuse killings in recent years that have heightened the scrutiny on Maine’s system for protecting kids.
This is the third in a series of four reports that OPEGA is doing on specific abuse deaths. The two previous reports have cleared the Office of Child and Family Services within the Department of Health and Human Services of wrongdoing in those cases, but pointed to more general issues in its response.
In the most recent report, Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and OCFS Director Todd Landry said they plan to learn from the findings.
“We are committed to utilizing these cases to learn and take every possible step to prevent future harm as well as improve the overall well-being of children and families,” they said.
In response to followup questions, DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell said the agency is implementing a Child Safety and Family Wellbeing Plan which aims to prevent child abuse before it happens by identifying early moments for intervention.
“The Department shares in the anger and deep sadness that families and communities feel upon the tragic death of a child,” Farwell said. “We continue to ask ourselves what more could be done to prevent such tragedies.”
They are also working with the Legislature to make improvements in systems, staffing and training; provide more assistance to children whose parents have substance use disorders; and improve communication with schools, law enforcement, courts and communities, Farwell said.
OPEGA Director Peter Schleck presented the most recent report to the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee Wednesday morning. There were multiple dangerous people who were connected to Jaden’s mother, Kayla Hartley, and entered the life of Jaden and his half-siblings, the report said.
Child protective services should have ensured the safety of the half-siblings in the home before Jaden was born, and there were two distinct times the agency made “unsound safety decisions,” the report said.
One of those cases occurred early in 2020, when a man living in Hartley’s home allegedly inflicted an ear injury on one of Hartley’s children. The child initially told a caseworker that the man — who lived there with his partner and their own child — had caused the injury, according to the report. But the child later changed the story when re-telling it in the presence of Hartley, saying that they’d slipped and fallen while playing a game with the man.
The caseworker erred by giving too much weight to that version of events, as a background check showed that the man had previous convictions for charges that included domestic violence assaults and a recent violation of a protection from abuse order, according to the report. The man should have been removed from the home as the caseworker did more assessments and tracked down the circumstances of the protection order, the report said.
The second unsound decision happened in June 2020, when police reported concerns about Hartley’s mental health and her ability to care for her kids after an adult relative had died in her home.
A caseworker who visited the home ultimately determined it was safe, in part because out-of-state relatives were staying there at the time, but the report argues that there should have been more intervention given that those relatives would be leaving in a few days.
Other shortcomings highlighted by the report included caseworkers not recognizing that a relative who was staying in Hartley’s home was the same relative who had allegedly sexually abused her children in the past, because their background search didn’t include the adoptive name the person had been using.
And the report found that caseworkers never assessed Harding’s safety toward the children even though he was a household member. However, a search of his criminal history would not have had any results, and his history with child protective services was not enough to warrant an intervention.
Hartley showed multiple times that she lacked the ability to keep unsafe people away from her children, which should have been enough reason for more state oversight, the report said.
That part of the report included a response from DHHS, which said “caseworkers generally do not have the time available to perform the comprehensive review of a family’s history that is necessary to identify such patterns.”
Hartley no longer has custody of her three children, she said during Harding’s sentencing in September.
The report recommends that the Office of Child and Family Services create a standard process for reviewing family histories, and that any staff assigned to do the work have adequate time and resources.
Throughout the hearing, lawmakers expressed concern and shock about things that slipped through the cracks, such as the relative who wasn’t subject to a complete background check. They also repeatedly brought up the lack of resources, time and communication caseworkers have talked about at previous hearings.
The report recommended that upper management of the Office of Child and Family Services improve its communication with caseworkers and supervisors.