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Watchdog finds ‘errors on top of errors’ at DHHS before child death

Ronald Harding enters a courtroom at the Penobscot Judicial Center on Thursday, March 2, 2023.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
Ronald Harding enters a courtroom at the Penobscot Judicial Center on Thursday, March 2, 2023.

A watchdog agency has found that Maine's child protection program repeatedly failed to ensure the safety of children in a home where an infant died of abuse years later.

The review was sparked by a spate of child deaths over the course of a month in 2021. Jaden Harding was just six weeks old when he died in May 2021 reportedly at the hands of his biological father. Maine's child welfare programs had not been involved with Jaden during his short life. But the Maine Department of Health and Human Services had been involved with Jaden's mother, Kayla Hartley, and his three older half-siblings for years.

The Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability found there were plenty of potential warning signs that suggest DHHS should have taken additional steps to ensure all of the children were safe.

"This case presents numerous examples in which there were errors on top of errors and an ongoing inability by the department to recognize the simple lack of protective capacity from the mother of Jaden Harding,” Peter Schleck, OPEGA’s director, told members of the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee on Wednesday.

The infant's father, Ronald Harding, was found guilty of manslaughter earlier this year and sentenced to nearly 7 years in prison. His mother was not charged. But Schleck said there was "a literal parade of questionable people coming through the family home" in the years before Jaden was born.

OPEGA's review found DHHS made several "unsound safety decisions." In one case, a DHHS caseworker failed to recognize that, because of a name change, a relative spending time in the home was the same person who had been accused of sexually assaulting two of the older children. The man also had a lengthy criminal history that included domestic violence convictions. OPEGA also faulted the agency for eight “practice issues” that occurred during investigations of Hartley’s home before and after she told DHHS that she was pregnant with Jaden.

But Schleck said he was struck by the fact that as he was reading the case files for the first time, he kept writing in his notes that "case workers have not read the history."

"You get later in this report the statement from the department that the caseworkers don't have time to do it. And that is a segway to the conversations we had last week with frontline workers,” Schleck said. “And I would just highlight that to you as an area of exploration for this committee that, if that is what's going on, then the caseworkers have too many cases, they don't have the time to do the necessary work."

Last week, caseworkers and other frontline DHHS staff told the same committee that they were overworked, understaffed and often unsupported by upper management. In emotional testimony reported by the Portland Press Herald, workers said they were often forced to go alone into situations where they felt unsafe and that they were threatened or even stalked by family members. In many instances, caseworkers said they often spent nights in hospitals and hotel rooms with children who had to be removed from their families.

In response to high-profile child deaths, lawmakers have earmarked millions of dollars in recent years to hire additional staff within child protective service. But DHHS has struggled to fill all of those positions.

Meanwhile, Schleck said Jaden's mother told a court that she has lost custody of her three other children since Jaden's death. But that raised other concerns for committee members like Portland Sen. Jill Duson, who says she lacks confidence that the current system has the ability to handle the reunification of children from troubled families or otherwise ensure they are adequately cared for.

"There are still three children who have lived in it sounds like a disorderly house, dangerous house over years of time with us, this state, intervening to attend to their safety but still falling through the cracks,” Duson said.

The head of the Office of Child and Family Services, Todd Landry, is expected to respond to the latest OPEGA report during a future meeting of the Government Oversight Committee. But in a written response, the agency said that “it can often be challenging for staff to gather all the relevant information regarding a family” but that the department has made numerous changes in recent years to improve that process. DHHS also noted that many of the child welfare program’s dealings with the mother – going back to 2014 – predate more recent changes aimed at identifying and addressing families with high risk of abuse or neglect.

“No amount of retrospective review will change the grief, loss and anger that results from a caregiver murdering a child,” wrote Landry and DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew. “Nonetheless, we are committed to utilizing these cases to learn and take every possible step to prevent future harm as well as improve the overall well-being of children and families . . . OCFS is committed to continuing to work to prevent tragedies through system improvements and upstream preventative measures that avoid the need for child protective involvement altogether.”

OPEGA is currently working on a fourth and final investigation into DHHS involvement in the lives of four children who died of abuse in 2021.

Meanwhile, the Government Oversight Committee on Wednesday continued to hear from caseworkers at Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services who say the agency is hemorrhaging staff, expertise and morale while it attempts to protect vulnerable children from neglect and abuse.

The testimony from frontline workers came as the oversight panel digs deeper into systemic problems at an agency that's no stranger to them.

But while there's been scrutiny of child protective services in the past, the testimony over the past week has sketched a harrowing picture of overworked case workers who are shouldering more responsibility to keep children safe as support staff and peers exit the job.

Stacey Henson-Drake, a caseworker at the Lewiston district office, described the job as a "warzone" and a "sinking ship" as she and others try to help kids in families experiencing extreme poverty, mental health and substance abuse.

"It's pretty horrendous. And you need time away from the work in order to, you know, fill up your cup and give back and give your all to the work," she said. "And there's just no ability to do that."

Henson-Drake said about 44% of the caseworker positions at the Lewiston office are vacant and that there have been 28 resignations this year alone.

She said that's led to mandatory overtime for the remaining workers, who often have to supervise children staying in hotels and hospitals after their regular work hours.

Her testimony sheds more light on an agency scrutinized for the recent deaths of children in its custody.

The Government Oversight Committee is expected to hold additional hearings as it weighs potential legislative reforms.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.