The state agency charged with ensuring children’s safety received 25 reports about Marissa Kennedy and her family in the 16 months leading up to her February 2018 murder. But it didn’t confirm her stepfather and mother were abusing her until she was dead.
A summary of Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ involvement with Marissa Kennedy’s family released Friday following Sharon Kennedy’s sentencing in her daughter’s murder for the first time offers the public a detailed look at the state agency’s response to multiple reports from school employees, neighbors and treatment professionals detailing concerns about Marissa Kennedy’s safety and wellbeing.
The chronicle of the department’s involvement shows that, despite frequent reports alleging Julio Carrillo’s violent, controlling behavior toward Marissa and Sharon Kennedy, no one managed to confirm he was abusing the girl — a finding that could have prompted the state to remove her from her mother and stepfather’s custody. The department opened two official investigations into the family while Marissa Kennedy was alive, but only the investigation opened after her death confirmed that her caregivers had been abusing her.
While Marissa was alive, DHHS received at least 25 calls reporting concerns about her family. Six came from her school, 15 from mental health and medical professionals, two from police, and two from people in the community.
There were more than a dozen times when DHHS tried to reach the family and could not, but the department met or spoke with the family fairly frequently, at least 19 times, according to a review of the case summary.
The summary also shows that Julio Carrillo and Sharon Kennedy had frequent contact with caseworkers, case managers, school employees, mental health clinicians and other treatment professionals, only to periodically miss appointments and stop engaging with them. Marissa Kennedy was frequently in the emergency room for mental health-related reasons. And it appears the family repeatedly reported false information to caseworkers and school officials about treatment professionals they were seeing, medications Marissa was prescribed and the reasons for the girl’s frequent absences. Julio Carrillo did not allow Sharon and Marissa Kennedy to speak for themselves, much less speak alone with caseworkers and treatment professionals.
Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, who was appointed in 2019, said Friday afternoon that the deaths of Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick in December 2017 shed “long overdue light on Maine’s child welfare system.
“While we have further to go, we are on a path to reform and progress,” she said. “We maintain our commitment to transparency and learning from the past as we strive for a system that promotes safety, stability, health and happiness for all Maine children and families.”
The first report to the department came in October 2016 — more than 16 months before Marissa Kennedy was killed — when a school employee in Bangor alerted DHHS to five unexcused absences, which Julio Carrillo attributed to a number of mental health treatment appointments for the girl. DHHS decided against opening a case to investigate the family.
But less than two months later, the family was back on the department’s radar when it received two reports in one day — one from a school employee, another from a mental health clinician. The school employee reported visiting the family’s Bangor apartment, where neighbors recalled frequent yelling in the home. The clinician reported concerns about both Sharon and Marissa Kennedy’s mental and behavioral health.
DHHS opened a case into the family this time, but closed it about a month later with no findings that Marissa Kennedy’s stepfather and mother had abused or neglected her. However, the department warned that it could become involved with the family again if Sharon Kennedy’s mental health problems (a clinician had said a month before that she needed inpatient treatment, but that no beds were available) were not addressed.
Less than three months afterward, DHHS was again hearing concerns about the Kennedy-Carrillo family. A mental health clinician for Marissa reported that only Julio Carrillo spoke at the girl’s intake appointment, and the clinician was concerned he had lied both to school officials and the police about the girl’s wellbeing and absences from school (she had nearly 50 during that school year).
In late May, DHHS opened another case to look into allegations against the family, but closed it a month later. While the department made no findings of abuse and neglect, it referred the Kennedy-Carrillo family to an alternative response agency and expressed concerns about Marissa’s continued absences from school and the family’s failure to follow up on recommended mental health and medical care for the girl. The department said it expected the family to seek mental health treatment for both Marissa and Sharon.
Alternative response is a route the department uses in cases in which it doesn’t think children face a high risk of abuse or neglect. A social worker from a nonprofit organization visits the family and works with parents and children to try to make their home safer and connect parents with needed services such as mental health and substance use treatment.
The alternative response worker, from the Rockland-based Home Counselors Inc., met with the family a number of times but at times couldn’t get in touch with Carrillo and Sharon Kennedy.
Two days before Marissa Kennedy was killed, a social worker met with the Carrillo-Kennedy family and noted bruises on Marissa and that the 10-year-old fell asleep during the meeting. The following day, Julio Carrillo texted the social worker to tell her he planned to call crisis services for Sharon Kennedy due to her mental health problems.
The next day, Feb. 25, 2018, Marissa Kennedy was killed, prompting DHHS to open an investigation. That investigation, the third into the family, that concluded that Julio Carrillo and Sharon Kennedy had abused and neglected Marissa and that their two younger children faced a threat of abuse and neglect.
BDN writer Erin Rhoda contributed to this report.