AUGUSTA — Governor Paul LePage released an 11-page Department of Health and Human Services report on Maine’s child protective system May 31. DHHS came under heavy criticism following the Feb. 25 death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy at the hands of her mother and stepfather, despite multiple agencies/sources reporting suspicions of abuse.
Kennedy’s death occurred less than three months after the death of four-year-old Kendall Chick, who reportedly died violently at the hands of her grandfather’s then-fiance Shawna Gatto in their Wiscasset home.
The mother and stepfather of Marissa Kennedy, 33-year-old Sharon Carrillo, and her husband, 51-year-old Julio Carrillo, both of Stockton Springs, were arrested the day after her death and both were charged with depraved indifference murder. It is the same charge leveled against Gatto.
An initial report from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability [OPEGA] was released May 24 about its initial findings with regard to DHHS’s handling of the cases of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy (Read: State investigators release initial report concerning abuse deaths of two Maine children).
The investigation was ordered by the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee (GOC) following Marissa Kennedy’s death, which led to widespread outrage.
While the report did not specify which of the children had prior DHHS involvement, it is widely known that a number of agencies reported suspicions that Marissa was being abused in the year ahead of her death. The findings included that DHHS failed to follow procedures and protocols in the case and that the only people who had a full picture of the case were certain mandated reporters.
Kendall Chick reportedly had far less, if any involvement, with DHHS prior to her December death.
Department of Health and Human Services Internal Report
The internal DHHS report includes information on the intake procedure, assessment procedure, and open case procedure for child welfare reports of abuse, in addition to a summary of strategic initiatives.
When DHHS receives information about a potentially abused or neglected child, their first step is to decide whether the child may be in danger, according to the report. If DHHS believes the child may be in danger they will send either a trained Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) Child Protection Services caseworker or a trained Alternative Response Program (ARP) caseworker to meet with the family and gather more information about the potential danger. The two positions vary in that the OCFS caseworker is a state employee, whereas an ARP caseworker is a contractor with the state.
If it is determined that a child “cannot safely be parented within his or her home [DHHS] works with parents/caregivers to provide services and supports to increase their ability to safely raise their children,” the report states.
The assistance offered can include supporting the child within his or her home, while other times “it may be necessary to temporarily or permanently remove the child from the home.”
The report states that throughout the process, DHHS must balance “numerous factors, including the rights and responsibilities of the parents, statutory priorities, and the foremost priority of child safety. Ensuring the safety of children requires [DHHS] and the community to work together to identify and support children at risk.”
Stages of a report
The first stage of a report of suspected abuse or neglect is the intake procedure, which involves OFCS intake staff gathering information regarding the referent and family in question. This information includes things like who is in the home, the abuse allegations, and any past history with protective services. Intake staff will then make a determination as to whether the allegation is “appropriate” or “inappropriate” for Child Protective Services (CPS) intervention, according to the report.
If the report is deemed to be appropriate timeframes for action will be set depending on the severity of risk involved with the specific allegations. High-risk situations, which include imminent safety concerns, must be responded to within 24 hours, while low-to-moderate safety risk situations allow 72 hours for a response. Low-to-moderate risks include things like concern over the potential for abuse.
Once the report becomes an open assessment it is sent to the local OCFS District Office for assignment using a number of guidelines. If the severity of the case is high, the case will always be assigned to an OCFS CPS caseworker. If the risk is deemed low-to-moderate the case may be assigned to the local ARP provider.
When a report does not contain allegations of abuse or neglect it is marked “inappropriate” for intervention. A determination is then made with regard to whether the report warrants referrals to other voluntary community intervention or prevention service providers.
During the assessment procedure, which occurs after a report has been deemed appropriate for intervention, the caseworker initiates contact with the family before interviewing every member separately. The caseworker also gathers information from others involved with the family, such as extended family, neighbors, school officials, and local police, among others.
Within 35 days of opening the assessment, the caseworker will determine whether the allegations have been substantiated or not.
A substantiated allegation is a finding of “high severity abuse or neglect that results in an open case. It may result in a closed case in those instances, where the “substantiated” abuser no longer has access to the child, such as when the abuser has been incarcerated,” according to the report.
If a caseworker has found no abuse or neglect, the case is determined to be unsubstantiated and the assessment is closed.
Cases can also be deemed “indicated” which is “a finding of a low-to-moderate severity abuse or neglect that results in an open case.
Open case procedures
DHHS procedures for open cases were also included in the report, which involves requesting court intervention when a child cannot be safely maintained in his or her home. Under those circumstances DHHS will advocate for the court to respond in one of two ways.
They may request the court remove the child from the home and make DHHS the legal guardian of the child when safety concerns still exist within the current family home. This process includes working with the family on rehabilitation and reunification with the child. Working toward reunification is mandated except when there are aggravating factors such as heinous or abhorrent treatment.
DHHS can also ask the Court to order the parent/caregiver to participate in rehabilitative services in order to mitigate the child safety concerns. In such cases the child would remain in the parent/caregiver’s custody, according to the report.
The Attorney General’s Office is also consulted and collaborated with during open DHHS cases, particularly determining whether to file court action.
Open cases can also exist without Court involvement, in which case DHHS will work with the respective family to create a plan to address child-safety concerns. Plans will either opt to leave the child in his or her current home or to place the child with agreed-upon informal family supports on a voluntary basis, the report states.
During late winter and early spring, OCFS completed an extensive review of the internal Child Welfare System, coinciding with the December death of Kendall Chick and the late February death of Marissa Kennedy.
The review entailed “a detailed look at specific cases as well as the resulting evaluation of overall Child Welfare practice and policy decisions.”
As a result of the internal review, OCFS “initiated several strategic initiatives,” which were detailed further in the report.
Some of these initiatives included improving the services of ARP, increasing efficiency and effectiveness of casework practice, improving child safety decision-making through improved access and management of information available to caseworkers, among others.
There are six total initiatives included in the report with each broken down into objectives and their respective statuses.
The majority of the initiatives list March 2018 as an implementation date.
DHHS concludes its report by noting that it has undertaken a significant review of the internal child welfare process.
“Although many of the reforms mentioned herein are in response to recent incidents, several were previously initiated and have been in the process of development and implementation. [DHHS] has been in contact with corresponding agencies in other states to identify best practices for implementation in Maine.”
They note the list of reforms given in the report is not exhaustive of all reforms that may be undertaken.
“Further reforms may be recommended or implemented upon the completion of additional, upcoming reviews. However, [DHHS] can assure the public that these reforms have resulted in a more responsive and protective system. The public should have confidence that the Child Protective Service system can and will take action where appropriate to protect a child in a potentially abusive situation.”
Erica Thoms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org