February 20, 2020
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Maine’s child welfare system failed Marissa Kennedy, and her family

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN
Marissa Kennedy, in an undated photograph.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

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/cw/reporting_abuse.

The ongoing trial of Sharon Carrillo, who is charged with the murder of her daughter Marissa Kennedy, is a multilayer tragedy that highlights the horrid consequences of a cycle of violence and abuse.

According to court testimony, the abuse — torture, really — of Marissa Kennedy was stomach churning and cannot be ignored or minimized. Her mother and stepfather failed her in ways that fill us with despair. They must be punished for their actions and for their indifference to her life.

We in no way condone Sharon Carrillo’s treatment of Marissa or her refusal to speak out about the abuse that eventually killed her 10-year-old daughter. However, we must recognize that Carrillo was also a victim of her abusive husband Julio Carrillo, and of a system that failed not just Marissa, but also the whole Carrillo family.

Julio Carrillo was sentenced to 55 years in prison in August after he pleaded guilty to depraved indifference murder in his stepdaughter’s death.

Of course, it is not solely government’s responsibility to fix an extremely dysfunctional family. But, the death of Marissa Kennedy should force all of us to consider what can be done to protect children like her, as well as women like Sharon Carrillo, who has intellectual disabilities and was also abused and controlled by her husband.

Many entities, both public and private, knew — or at least suspected — that Marissa and her mother were being abused. Neighbors called police. Bangor school officials and Marissa’s physician notified the Department of Health and Human Services, which had been in contact with the family.

Yet, Marissa was still beaten to death.

Shortly after her death in February 2018, then Gov. Paul LePage proposed some steps to improve the state’s child protective services system. However, a watchdog report made clear that the Department of Health and Humans Services, under his watch, struggled to answer calls about suspected abuse, manage growing workloads and to meet changing directives regarding the placement of children who were in danger.

LePage and lawmakers did take action following the deaths of Marissa and 4-year-old Kendall Chick in 2017, approving funds to hire more caseworkers and raise their wages and to improve the state’s child welfare information system.

Earlier this year, Gov. Janet Mills included funding in her first budget to hire additional child welfare staff. The Department of Health and Human Services is also reviewing and revamping many of its practices and services to better help Maine children and families. The governor has also reestablished a Children’s Cabinet.

We won’t pretend that child abuse will end, but these are important investments and changes to better focus attention on proven interventions aimed at reducing abuse and enabling families to overcome difficulties.

At the same time, domestic violence continues to plague Maine. Each year, about half of the state’s homicides are attributed to domestic violence. The victims are predominantly women.

Only a small percentage of domestic violence assaults are reported to police. Maine Department of Public Safety statistics show that 3,699 incidents of domestic violence assault were reported in 2018. However, the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence and its partners worked with more than 14,000 people who reached out for help last year. These numbers show that many more people, especially children, are impacted by domestic violence than crime statistics reflect.

There are numerous reasons why people do not report domestic violence abuse. One of the most common is fear of retribution, which highlights the emotional control that abusers can have on their victims, like Sharon Carrillo. Violence often increases when a victim tries to leave.

To encourage more victims to seek help, law enforcement must respond to domestic violence calls with more urgency and be prepared to launch an investigation without the participation of the victim. When police responded to incidents at their home, Sharon Carrillo made excuses for the noises, according to court testimony in her trial. This is a familiar pattern in domestic violence situations.

In a recent interview with the BDN, Michael Sauschuck, commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, said that law enforcement needs to improve its interactions with domestic violence victims. “We need to build trust with victims so they’ll come forward,” he said. Law enforcement officers must realize that every call is an opportunity to stop a traumatic relationship and, perhaps, to save a life, he said.

The day after her daughter died, Sharon Carrillo talked with Maine State Police Detective Jason Andrews for three hours. She told him: “I should have been 100 percent more of a mother and just walked away.”

She’s right, of course. But, we know it is extremely difficult for victims of domestic violence to simply walk away.

There are many tragic lessons from Marissa Kennedy’s horrific murder. One, undoubtedly, is that much more remains to be done — by government officials, law enforcement and others — to ensure that families get the support and intervention they need long before violence ends a young life.

The Carrillos must be brought to justice for what they did to Marissa, but we must also work to address the institutional and societal failures that played a role in this tragedy.

 


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