© 2021 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Watchdog Agency Finds That State Failed To Follow Policies In Fatal Child Abuse Cases

Patty Wight
Maine Public
OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft Testifies to Government Oversight Committee

The state agency charged with government oversight, OPEGA, released a report Thursday about the state's handling of two child abuse cases that resulted in death.

While the report identified potential areas for improvement in the state child protection system, it did not shed light on the specific interactions the state had with the two families. Several lawmakers expressed frustration that without that information, they cannot enact effective policies to better protect children.

Before she presented the findings of the report, the Director of OPEGA, Beth Ashcroft, acknowledged to lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee that they would likely be frustrated by the amount of information her agency could publicly share.

"I've never tried so hard to say something without saying anything," Ashcroft said.

Constrained by confidentiality laws for the families involved in the child abuse cases and by ongoing criminal investigations, Ashcroft said she disclosed what she could.

She pointed to some of the similarities between the cases of four-year-old Kendall Chick and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy. First, both children died from physical abuse that occurred over a period of time.

"Second, it seems that on the few occasions when individuals outside the household observed actual physical marks that might otherwise have indicated physical child abuse, one or both adults in the home explained them as injuries the children themselves were responsible for causing,” she said. “The observers appear to have found the explanations that those adults gave reasonable at those times."

Chick died last December after being placed in the care of her grandfather and his fiancee, Shawna Gatto, who is charged with depraved indifference murder. Kennedy died in February after she was beaten for months. Her mother and stepfather are charged with depraved indifference murder.

As for where the child protection system broke down for Chick and Kennedy, Ashcroft said in one case the state failed to follow its own policies and procedures in assessing whether the child's placement was appropriate. Ashcroft also cited a lack of information sharing in assessing the risk of abuse. In both cases, Ashcroft said a 'reasonable cause to suspect' requirement to report suspected abuse or neglect, was also a factor.

"It has, by nature, some judgment involved here."

Ashcroft said this comes into play when a police department gets calls about domestic disturbances that sound like child abuse. Several former neighbors of Marissa Kennedy have said that they did call law enforcement with concerns. But when police investigate, Ashcroft said, and do not observe signs of abuse, they may not feel they have reasonable cause, and they therefore don't report it to the state.

"Every incident is treated on its own, unless somebody sees a body of things going on," she said.

It's an area identified for possible improvement in the OPEGA report, which suggests better training for mandated reporters on when to make a report. It also recommends more information sharing between those who interact with the child protection system, including schools, law enforcement officials, and health care providers. The OPEGA report also suggests the state could make its assessments of potential abuse and neglect more timely and comprehensive.

Ashcroft noted that OPEGA did not have time to fully investigate the possible constraints child protection workers face in performing their jobs.

"We have heard a number of concerns about time management and caseload, and what's expected, and what they actually have for time to do some of the things they're supposed to do," she said.

"As we sit here, we know kids are being abused. What are we doing?" asked Democratic Senator Bill Diamond.

Diamond was among lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee who expressed a sense of urgency to make improvements to the state child protection system. But many of their questions about the cases, such as how many reports of abuse were made to the state, and what the findings were, Ashcroft would not answer, citing confidentiality laws.

“This is really beyond frustrating, I think, for all of us,” said Republican Senator Roger Katz, co-chair of the Government Oversight Committee.

“We just can't make good policies when agencies are shielded from accountability because of laws we have passed.”

After a public hearing on this report next Thursday, OPEGA will conduct a broader review of the state child protection system, which could provide more answers. Ashcroft said the state has already made changes to improve its procedures, which includes automatically assigning a case for assessment after three reports of suspected abuse or neglect.

Both Governor LePage and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton issued statements that OPEGA's findings mirror those identified in internal reviews. Governor LePage offered to share his administration's recommendatIons with OPEGA.

Senator Katz suggested that confidentiality laws may also need to be addressed in the future.

Updated 5:43 p.m.