AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine child welfare authorities received three reports of abuse or neglect involving Kendall Chick before the 4-year-old’s 2017 death, with one marked by deficient casework, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said in a Tuesday memo.
Child welfare caseworkers were involved with Chick at the beginning of her young life. Later, they found that she had been neglected by her birth parents. She went to live in May 2016 with her grandfather, Stephen Hood, whose fiancee, Shawna Gatto, was sentenced to 50 years on Tuesday for the Wiscasset girl’s murder in December 2017.
Details of the state’s history with Chick had been withheld ahead of the sentencing. The girl’s death, along with the killing just more than two months later of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy, led to an investigation by the Legislature’s watchdog arm and changes to the child welfare system.
The memo does not go into detail about how the department erred, although there are clues in another report. It also does not explain why it closed a child welfare case on Chick in February 2017 and never dealt with her family again until the girl was dead 10 months later.
Chick was living with Hood and Gatto under an agreement with the state in the third child welfare case involving the girl. Caseworkers first became involved with Chick when she was born. Hood told the Portland Press Herald in 2018 that both of her birth parents — one of whom is his son — were involved in drugs and that the girl had been born drug-affected. Allusions to developmental delays were made during Gatto’s trial.
After her birth, the department left Chick in her birth parents’ custody while referring them to parenting education, housing assistance and treatment. They completed those services and the state closed their case in August 2014. In October of that year, the state fielded another report regarding the girl, but caseworkers didn’t substantiate allegations of abuse or neglect.
The state got another report involving the girl in May 2016, and caseworkers later substantiated allegations of neglect. After that, the parties agreed to have Chick live with Hood and Gatto.
This is when the department flagged “deficits” in casework and failure to follow other agency policies. Chick was moved to her grandfather’s home in May 2016 after the department conducted a review outlined in policy assessing the appropriateness of placement with a relative and the safety of the home. Questions asked during that process range from their ability to provide for the child to whether working smoke detectors are present.
After the girl’s death, the memo from Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said the state identified “deficits in the casework practice and oversight,” including “failures to adhere to policies” around placement with family members.
Those are not specified and department spokeswoman Jackie Farwell did not respond to a request for more specifics on Tuesday, but there are further clues in a 2018 report from the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability on the deaths of Kennedy and Chick. Confidentiality requirements kept it from disclosing many details about the cases or delineating between them.
In one case, it found that the Office of Child and Family Services “failed to follow policies and procedures in fully assessing the appropriateness of the placement and staying engaged with the child and family to ensure needed services and supports were provided,” saying that “poor job performance and inadequate supervision” were factors.
The department spoke with Gatto often between May 2016 and January 2017, when it closed the last child welfare case involving Chick. According to the memo, the girl’s birth parents did not follow through with services recommended by the department, so Chick remained in her grandfather’s home with Gatto as a caregiver.
The department spoke to her by phone six times and visited the home twice between June 2016 and January 2017. At one point, the state recommended that Hood and Gatto obtain legal guardianship of the girl. The state closed that child welfare case on Chick in February 2017.
The last report to the department came in after Chick was declared dead. At Gatto’s trial, the state’s chief medical examiner said she died of head trauma, “catastrophic” trauma to her abdomen and multiple injuries to parts of her body over time — a sign of chronic abuse.
Hood, who testified for the prosecution in April and was pointed to as an alternative suspect by the defense, said he often noticed injuries to the girl that Gatto would often explain as falls. What is not known is how long that went on and how noticeable the injuries would have been.
If you are concerned about child neglect or abuse, call Maine’s 24-hour hotline at 800-452-1999 or 711 to speak to with a child protective specialist. Calls may be made anonymously. For more information, visit maine.gov/dhhs/ocfs/cw/reporting_abuse.