What Happens When Child Abuse Is Reported in Maine

By Shepherd, Michael; Stone, Matthew | Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME), March 4, 2018 | Go to article overview

What Happens When Child Abuse Is Reported in Maine


Shepherd, Michael, Stone, Matthew, Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME)


When school officials and neighbors called the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to alert the agency about suspected abuse of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy, their reports entered a complex child welfare system.

It fields thousands of reports of suspected child abuse and neglect each year, and its workers have the often conflicting tasks of protecting children, respecting the rights of parents, acting quickly while following legal processes, splitting families apart and working to reunite them.

The state's child welfare system hit a nadir in early 2001, when 5-year-old Logan Marr suffocated at the hands of her foster mother, Sally Schofield, who served a 17-year sentence for manslaughter. Prosecutors said she wrapped 42 feet of duct tape around the girl's head.

[What we know about the short life of Marissa Kennedy]

Marr was an example of the state's aggressive tack in pulling children from homes in the late 1990s. Her death spurred a move toward family reunification. Afterward, Maine was held up as a national model by groups including the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

"Really, you're out there not only trying to figure out what's going on in the family, but also to be perceived as enough of a resource to help them," said Mark Moran, a licensed social worker who was a child protective caseworker from 2001 to 2006 and is now the family service and support team coordinator at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. "It's one of the dynamics that make child protective work particularly difficult. You're trying to juggle multiple roles at the same time.

The system is massive and imperfect. There were 8,277 reported abuse or neglect cases in 2016, 60 percent more than in 2003, according to state data. But while 50 percent of cases were substantiated 15 years ago, just over 27 percent were in 2016.

[Top legislators call for probe into Maine response to reports girl was being abused]

Somerset County had the highest rate of substantiated child abuse cases, followed by Kennebec County, which saw its rate of child abuse cases increase between 2012 and 2016.

Throughout the process -- from report to investigation to court action -- there are lots of judgment calls, said Shawn Yardley, CEO of the Lewiston social services organization Community Concepts, who worked as a child protective services worker and supervisor for more than a decade until 1999.

"There was a protocol, but it was an art, too," he said.

Before anything happens, reports of abuse or neglect have to make it through to DHHS.

The Child Protective Services system starts with those reports, and the most common sources are school staff members. They were responsible for one in five abuse reports Maine DHHS received in 2016, with law enforcement and medical personnel each responsible for 15 percent.

In 2016, about 22 percent of calls to the state's child abuse hotline went unanswered on the first try, and the callers either hung up or left voicemail messages. A DHHS spokeswoman on Friday didn't respond to a request for figures showing how many hotline calls went unanswered in 2017.

What follows those reports is opaque, governed by confidentiality requirements in state law. And state rules are clear that DHHS has no obligation to inform the person who files an abuse report about the result of a case.

[12,198 calls to Maine's child abuse hotline went unanswered in 2016]

In the Kennedy case, Bangor's superintendent of schools has said the district reported suspected abuse to DHHS, as required by law, when the girl's family was living in the city. A woman who cleaned the Bangor apartment building that Kennedy lived in also said that she reported abuse, and police were called to their homes in Bangor and Stockton Springs.

Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, an advocacy group for school superintendents, said it has a long been "a constant" that the state provides a range of responses to abuse reports, from quick contact with a family to the point where it takes "multiple reports to initiate any type of activity. …

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