AUGUSTA — Governor Paul LePage has issued a response to the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability report about the findings of the first phase of their investigation into the Department of Health and Human Services handling of the deaths of two Maine children at the hands of their caretakers.
The investigation was ordered by the Government Oversight Committee March 9, following the December death of Kendall Chick, and the Feb. 25 death of 10-year old Marissa Kennedy. Kendall was reportedly killed after suffering abuse at the hands of her grandfather’s then-fiance, Shawna Gatto. Marissa suffered a prolonged and violent death at the hands of her mother and stepfather, Sharon and Julio Carrillo.
The report noted that DHHS failed to follow policies and procedures in its handling of Marissa Kennedy, whose abuse was reported by multiple concerned parties prior to her death.
In his response to the report, LePage said "the priority of the child welfare system should be doing what is in the best interests of the child, and we are carefully reviewing our statutes and systems to ensure that every decision is first and always about the child."
“We must proceed in a manner that does not jeopardize any pending prosecution so that justice is served for the children who so tragically lost their lives," he continued.
According to LePage, "the questions and concerns raised by OPEGA largely mirror those identified in the administration's internal review. DHHS has already made several reforms in the way child welfare cases are handled. It is important, however, that we have as much information as possible from all parties involved in this system before making significant changes that may have to be revised after additional formal reviews are completed. Our children deserve a system that works in their best interests."
The administration also offered to share its recommendations with OPEGA and noted that “additional recommendations will come from DHHS and the Child Death and Serious Injury Review Panel. Some of these recommendations may require legislation.”
DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton also released a statement regarding the preliminary report, saying that at this time DHHS’s focus must be to ensure that the recent tragedies are never repeated and that both Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy receive the justice they deserve. Hamilton said he “greatly appreciates” OPEGA’s review of DHHS’s role within the Maine child welfare system.
“We welcome and encourage external reviews of our processes and procedures, to ensure no stone is left unturned," he said in his statement.
He added that through DHHS’s internal investigation, “we have been able to identify areas in need of improvement, many of which are echoed in OPEGA's preliminary report. We are working hard at implementing a number of reforms aimed at improving the current system,” he said, adding that he looks forward to working with OPEGA as they carry out their broader review. Hamilton said he is hopeful that “more time and a more deliberative process will result in meaningful analysis and thoughtful recommendations."
Hamilton also said that he is eager for the time when the criminal investigations have concluded and additional information will be available for the public, agreeing with the Attorney General that “nothing should jeopardize justice for these two victims.”
"Once that has been achieved, I am confident that the Department's internal review, combined with the findings of the reviews done by a number of different oversight entities, will provide substantive insight for reform and improvement. Evaluating the entire network of parties that make up our state's child welfare system is critical to this process," he added.
Both Hamilton and Governor Lepage ended their statements by stressing that if anyone suspects child abuse or neglect, to call 1-800-452-1999 to make a report.
Erica Thoms can be reached at email@example.com