Official: DHHS Sometimes Makes Mistakes When Following Child Welfare Procedures

Mar 7, 2018

Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi says for the past several years, she has consistently recommended that the state’s Department of Health and Human Services improve its child safety assessments. The Department’s handling of child protective cases has come into question after the recent abuse death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy.

The ombudsman says that overall, DHHS follows proper procedures, but cites multiple instances in which it failed to do so.

It’s Alberi’s job to investigate complaints aimed at Maine’s system for protecting children from abuse and neglect. Since she took the post in 2013, every annual report she has submitted to the governor, the Department of Health and Human Services and lawmakers has highlighted the need to improve how DHHS conducts its assessments of cases in which abuse or neglect of a child is suspected.

“That is a consistent recommendation we’ve made,” she says.

In Alberi’s latest report, released in January, she found multiple cases in which assessments weren’t done properly. In some instances, that can mean the department failed to recognize the risk to children in their parents care. She says it can also mean not assessing the safety of another adult in the home.

Questions have been raised about whether DHHS properly assessed the safety of Kennedy and possibly her mother. Kennedy was found dead in her home in Stockton Springs on Feb. 25 after being subjected to months of abuse. Former neighbors and school officials say they reported suspected abuse to the state.

In a police affidavit, Kennedy’s mother and stepfather, Sharon and Julio Carrillo, admitted to beating the girl repeatedly for several months. But Sharon Carrillo’s attorney says she, too, was a victim of abuse.

Christine Alberi says she can’t comment on whether she received any complaints involving the family, but says these kinds of situations can be complicated.

“I mean there are times when caseworkers will go in and do everything exactly right, and still, there’s just no way they could’ve known that something bad was happening, and then there are some times when things are missed, or mistakes are made,” she says.

The primary goal in child welfare cases, Alberi says, is to keep children with their parents, because removing them from their home is very traumatic. The situation has to reach a certain critical point to justify removing children, and she says that threshold can be difficult to determine.

“There’s that line that you say, ‘OK, now things are not safe enough for this child.’ That line has moved back and forth historically, depending on cases that have happened or situations. And if it moves too far in one direction or too far in the other direction, it can leave children unsafe or is not in their best interests,” she says.

Most of the time, Alberi says, DHHS does follow proper policies and procedures. But she says it’s important to determine whether there were failures in Kennedy’s case.

“Of course, the questions are, the adults that were around Marissa, whether they’re from the Department or somewhere else, what did they know, what did they see?” she says.

Also, Alberi says, whether there is something that could be done differently to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.

This story was originally published March 6, 2018 at 5:39 p.m. ET.