A legislative watchdog panel voted Friday, March 9 to investigate Maine’s child welfare system and, separately, the handling of cases involving two girls who were killed, allegedly by family members, since December.
The probe, authorized unanimously by the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, will produce a report likely to be released in May on the February death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs and the December death of 4-year-old Kendall Chick, of Wiscasset. A more time-consuming report on Maine’s child welfare system will come next year.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has said little about Kennedy’s case. Her mother, Sharon Carrillo, and stepfather, Julio Carrillo, are charged with murder. Shawna Gatto, the fiancee of Chick’s grandfather, has been charged with murder in the Wiscasset case.
The department has come under particular scrutiny after Kennedy’s death. Bangor’s superintendent of schools has said the district contacted DHHS on “a number of occasions” while the girl was attending school there. A woman who cleaned the family’s Bangor apartment has said she also contacted the department.
“The system has clearly failed her,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chair of the watchdog committee. “We all failed her.”
Gov. Paul LePage broke the state’s near-silence on the case in an interview with WCSH on Wednesday, March 7, blaming DHHS and others for a “comedy of errors” before Kennedy’s death and saying the department had contact with Kennedy’s and Chick’s families before their deaths.
A DHHS spokeswoman hasn’t responded to Bangor Daily News requests for an interview with Commissioner Ricker Hamilton since last week, but the LePage administration, after top legislators backed a probe last week, said an internal review of the case has already begun.
Julie Rabinowitz, LePage’s spokeswoman, said Friday that the governor’s focus is on his administration’s review, which will be done by the Child Death and Serious Injury Review Panel.
“The Legislature is a separate branch and certainly can initiate its own investigation,” she said. “However, all investigations must be conducted in a manner that does not jeopardize a conviction so that justice for Marissa can be served.”
Hamilton told WCSH on Wednesday that he was largely prohibited from discussing the Kennedy case because of the open murder investigation into the Carrillos. But Attorney General Janet Mills backed the investigation in a letter to the oversight committee on Friday.
The Democratic gubernatorial candidate said there is “no greater matter with greater urgency” than the review, saying the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability has “adequate safeguards” to protect any confidential material.
The request for a probe was submitted by Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, co-chair of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, and backed by a bipartisan group of legislative leaders, including Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who are also running for governor.
Fredette, a key LePage ally, called the review appropriate and said child welfare is “a no-fail mission.”
“You can’t not have a system that’s there working for kids that can’t be responsible or shouldn’t be responsible,” he said. “They’re just kids.”