Jessica Gleason, center, urges for systemic change within DHHS Thursday at a gathering outside of the agency's Rockland office following the death of Maddox Williams. Maddox's paternal grandmother and aunt, left, were also in attendance. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine ― A group of people who have experiences with the Maine Department of Health and Human services gathered Thursday to call for systemic change within the state’s child welfare system.

The gathering outside of the agency’s Rockland office comes less than two weeks after 3-year-old Maddox Williams was killed in Stockton Springs. His mother, Jessica Trefethen, has been charged with his murder. Maddox’s paternal grandmother and aunt were in attendance Thursday.

Jessica Gleason, who had her own troublesome experience with DHHS while working to adopt her niece, organized the event and expressed concern over the agency’s handling of family reunification policies.

“We need internal systemic change, a cultural change. Although the system may work for a small percentage of successful reunifications, that is not the norm, and the child that doesn’t die endures severe excessive reintroduction to adverse childhood experiences that increase mortality rates and shorten life expectancies,” Gleason said.

Gleason called on the state’s office of program evaluation and government accountability to investigate Maddox’s death.

Maddox is one of several children to die over the past month, which has refocused attention on the state’s child welfare system. 

Last month, a 6-week-old infant in Brewer was allegedly shaken to death by his father, Ronald Harding; an Old Town mother, Hillary Goding, has been charged with manslaughter in the death of her 3-year-old daughter, Hailey; and a 4-year-old Windham boy was found dead, though police haven’t said foul play is involved.

DHHS said it would also investigate the June 17 death of a child in Temple who died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.

DHHS said last week that it would bring in a national organization focused on children’s safety and reducing the need for foster care to investigate the deaths.

The department has declined to say whether it had involvement with the children and their families prior to their deaths. However, court records indicate that caseworkers had involvement in Maddox’s life, including  at least two instances when police notified DHHS of instances when Maddox’s father, Andrew Williams, allegedly committed crimes with the child present.

After spending the first two years of his life with his father, Andrew Williams, Maddox was placed with his mother in March following his father’s arrest.  

Andrew Williams’ mother, Victoria Vose, and sister, Mikayla Williams, declined to say Thursday how they felt about Maddox being placed in his mother’s custody. However, Vose said that she called the office of the state’s child welfare ombudsman shortly after Maddox’s death and was told that there was enough information for the office to open up a review of Maddox’ case.

Vose and Mikayla Williams said they were grateful for those who showed Thursday up in support of Maddox and the call for change within DHHS.

“We want the change that’s needed,” Mikayla Williams said. “We’re happy to see the support, it’s good. The more people, the more likely this change will happen.”

Vose said her son and Maddox lived with her before they moved into their own apartment. Vose described Maddox as “happy” and “full of energy.”

“He was perfect,” Vose said.