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Report Finds DHHS Missed 'Red Flags' in Multiple Child Abuse Cases

Patty Wight
Maine Public
Earlier this week, a 10-year old girl from Stockton Springs was found beaten to death in her home, after months of abuse

A recent report from the Maine Children's Ombudsman found that the Department of Health and Human Services failed to follow proper assessment policy in multiple child welfare cases, including children in their parents' care.

Earlier this week, a 10-year old girl from Stockton Springs was found beaten to death in her home, after months of abuse. Former neighbors and school officials say they contacted DHHS with concerns about possible child abuse. Several lawmakers are now calling for an investigation into DHHS's handling of the case.

In her 2017 report, Maine's Child Welfare Services Ombudsman Christine Alberi said multiple child abuse cases involved the department's “failure to follow assessment policy, failure to follow safety planning policy, or failure to recognize risk to children in their parents’ care.”

Of particular concern, said Alberi, were cases involving highly vulnerable children.

The extent to which DHHS was involved with 10-year old Marissa Kennedy is unclear. Her mother and step-father are now charged with her murder. But Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau says he thinks her death could have been prevented.

"There were red flags. The system failed this little girl."

Marissa Kennedy attended school in Bangor last year and more recently lived in Stockton Springs. Several former neighbors from Bangor told reporters this week that they witnessed or heard what sounded like abuse in the home and repeatedly called police. On Thursday, Bangor Schools Superintendent, Dr. Betsy Webb, issued a statement that staff contacted DHHS on several occasions to report suspected abuse while Marissa Kennedy was a student. Senator Thibodeau now wants Governor LePage to investigate DHHS's handling of Kennedy's case.

"We want to make sure that the chief executive, this is high on his priority list, and that he takes a personal interest in making sure and understanding what has happened, and being absolutely committed to improving the checks and balances. Because this can't happen again."

Thibodeau isn't the only lawmaker calling for an investigation.

Democratic Representative Patty Hymanson is co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. She says she wants to know DHHS protocol after someone makes a call to report suspected abuse.

"What was the problem that broke down?” asks Hymanson. “Are other case workers overwhelmed? They are wonderful people, and I'm sure they're up at night because of this tragedy."

Hymanson is sending a letter to the Government Oversight Committee to ask them to conduct an expedited review of DHHS's process.

A spokeswoman for Governor LePage issued a written statement saying that DHHS is conducting a thorough internal investigation, as is the Child Death Review Panel, an independent body. The findings will be reported to the governor for his review and action.

DHHS did not respond to a request for comment about the call for the investigation. But in 2017 the Department did provide a response to the assessment from the Maine Children's Ombudsman's report. It said its Office of Child and Family Services engages in monthly face-to-face contacts in critical cases, and actively works with staff "to promote improvements where needed."

This story was originally published March 2, 2018 at 5:46 p.m. ET.