When school officials and neighbors called the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to alert the agency about suspected abuse of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy, their reports entered a complex child welfare system.
It fields thousands of reports of suspected child abuse and neglect each year, and its workers have the often conflicting tasks of protecting children, respecting the rights of parents, acting quickly while following legal processes, splitting families apart and working to reunite them.
The state’s child welfare system hit a nadir in early 2001, when 5-year-old Logan Marr suffocated at the hands of her foster mother, Sally Schofield, who served a 17-year sentence for manslaughter. Prosecutors said she wrapped 42 feet of duct tape around the girl’s head.
Marr was an example of the state’s aggressive tack in pulling children from homes in the late 1990s. Her death spurred a move toward family reunification. Afterward, Maine was held up as a national model by groups including the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“Really, you’re out there not only trying to figure out what’s going on in the family, but also to be perceived as enough of a resource to help them,” said Mark Moran, a licensed social worker who was a child protective caseworker from 2001 to 2006 and is now the family service and support team coordinator at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. “It’s one of the dynamics that make child protective work particularly difficult. You’re trying to juggle multiple roles at the same time.
The system is massive and imperfect. There were 8,277 reported abuse or neglect cases in 2016, 60 percent more than in 2003, according to state data. But while 50 percent of cases were substantiated 15 years ago, just over 27 percent were in 2016.
Somerset County had the highest rate of substantiated child abuse cases, followed by Kennebec County, which saw its rate of child abuse cases increase between 2012 and 2016.
Throughout the process — from report to investigation to court action — there are lots of judgment calls, said Shawn Yardley, CEO of the Lewiston social services organization Community Concepts, who worked as a child protective services worker and supervisor for more than a decade until 1999.
“There was a protocol, but it was an art, too,” he said.
Before anything happens, reports of abuse or neglect have to make it through to DHHS.
The Child Protective Services system starts with those reports, and the most common sources are school staff members. They were responsible for one in five abuse reports Maine DHHS received in 2016, with law enforcement and medical personnel each responsible for 15 percent.
In 2016, about 22 percent of calls to the state’s child abuse hotline went unanswered on the first try, and the callers either hung up or left voicemail messages. A DHHS spokeswoman on Friday didn’t respond to a request for figures showing how many hotline calls went unanswered in 2017.
What follows those reports is opaque, governed by confidentiality requirements in state law. And state rules are clear that DHHS has no obligation to inform the person who files an abuse report about the result of a case.
In the Kennedy case, Bangor’s superintendent of schools has said the district reported suspected abuse to DHHS, as required by law, when the girl’s family was living in the city. A woman who cleaned the Bangor apartment building that Kennedy lived in also said that she reported abuse, and police were called to their homes in Bangor and Stockton Springs.
Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, an advocacy group for school superintendents, said it has a long been “a constant” that the state provides a range of responses to abuse reports, from quick contact with a family to the point where it takes “multiple reports to initiate any type of activity.”
Even with a report made, there are still a number of steps before the state removes a child from his or her home.
Intake workers who receive the initial reports recommend the next steps, including whether the state should investigate those reports. But staff in DHHS’ regional offices located across the state make the final decisions on whether child abuse reports in their areas warrant follow-up.
“Basically, the department’s responsibility is to receive referrals and then investigate those referrals when they deem it rising to the level of warranting an investigation,” Yardley said.
While DHHS’ protocol has always recommended intervention in the more serious cases, the department’s intervention has always been governed to some extent by whether staff are available to investigate, Yardley said.
DHHS employed 115 child protective services investigators in 2016, down from 130 in 2010, according to federal reports. Bailey said his members often see “a manpower issue.”
When the department decides a case warrants follow-up, the child protective caseworker has to investigate a family’s circumstances, determine whether abuse is happening, and decide whether a child is at serious and immediate risk of death or injury, said Yardley. The investigation has to happen whether the family is cooperative or not.
“When there’s a referral, parents have a right to say, ‘I’m not talking to you,’ and close the door and refuse all contact,” said Yardley. “And then the department has to make a decision based on all the information they have, based on the allegations that have been made, are they serious enough to go to court?”
The caseworker has to put together a picture of a family’s life.
“You really are looking, depending on the allegation, to verify what’s been reported through whatever means you can,” Yardley said.
The information needed to do that can come from neighbors, teachers, doctors, relatives and others who are willing to talk. When a family does open the door to a child protective caseworker, the caseworker speaks with the parents and evaluates the child’s living environment to determine whether he or she is at risk of serious injury or death.
An investigator will look for signs of drug use or domestic violence, whether the home is sanitary or not, and a host of other factors that could put a child’s safety at risk. In determining whether there’s a serious threat to a child’s safety, the child’s age is also an important factor.
“After that, you’re going to interview the child if they’re old enough,” Moran said. “So, you’re trying to do that in an age-appropriate manner, but also a forensically sound manner. If the child is old enough, you want it to be able to hold up later in a legal setting.”
Whether to remove a child from his or her family isn’t the caseworker’s decision. That rests with supervisors, and often those supervisors’ superiors, in consultation with lawyers in the attorney general’s office who would be prosecuting a case in family court, Moran said.
After the department separates parents from their children, the caseworker’s role quickly changes, Yardley said. “The department immediately switches into, what’s it going to take to get the child back in the home?”
A lot still isn’t known about the Kennedy case, but many are already imploring Maine to learn from it.
DHHS hasn’t commented on Kennedy’s case, but after top Maine legislators on Thursday and Friday called for investigations into it, Gov. Paul LePage’s office responded with a statement saying the department is already reviewing the case and that the Child Death and Serious Injury Review Panel will also look at it.
It’s unclear whether DHHS ever had contact with Kennedy’s mother and stepfather, Sharon and Julio Carrillo, who are charged with murder and had two other children in the home. Attorneys for both of them said Thursday that they didn’t know whether the state had contacted them.
Not knowing this, it’s hard to evaluate where failures happened. But the state’s child welfare ombudsman, Christine Alberi, flagged concerns about handling of child abuse cases in a 2017 report, including a “failure to recognize risk to children in their parents’ care.”
“I think it’s a case that definitely needs to be looked at and learned from,” said Claire Berkowitz, the executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance.
BDN writers Darren Fishell and Nick McCrea contributed to this report. Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.