AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s watchdog agency will investigate the slayings of two Maine children who died in their homes as a result of what police say was months of abuse, and how the Department of Health and Human Services and other public agencies failed to protect them.

“The system has clearly failed her, we all failed her,” Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said Friday of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs. “Who reported what, what kind of communication was there between law enforcement, schools, Child Protective Services and how did the ball get dropped?”

Katz, the chairman of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, posed those questions just before a 10-0 committee vote to launch the investigation.

Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, a physician who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, requested the probe. She noted that Kennedy’s death, discovered by police on Feb. 25, was the second recent case involving a Maine child who police say died after being beaten for months. Kendall Chick, 4, of Wiscasset died in December. The state had placed Chick in the care of foster parent Shawna L. Gatto, 43, who has been charged with depraved indifference murder in the girl’s death.

A local police officer who went to Chick’s home told state investigators he believed the child’s skull had been fractured, there were lacerations on her head, neck and face, bruising around her eyes, under her nose, and on the side of her face and neck. An autopsy later said she had suffered significant blunt-force trauma to her head and neck, in addition to her abdomen.

‘HEARTSICK ABOUT THE ABUSE’

Marissa Kennedy’s mother, Sharon Carrillo, 33, and her stepfather, Julio Carrillo, 51, have been charged with depraved indifference murder in her death. Police say the Carrillos staged her death at the family’s condominium to make it look like an accident.

Kennedy was beaten and abused for months, locked in a dark closet for hours, forced to kneel on a tile floor while being beaten with a belt or bare hands, according to court records in the case and police affidavits on statements made by her parents. Her funeral was scheduled for Saturday in Newburgh, New York, her grandfather’s hometown.

“Both (children) were serially abused over time and then killed by adults in the homes where they lived,” Hymanson said. “People I speak with are heartsick about the child abuse and this murder.”

The committee’s vote Friday will launch a two-part investigation by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the Legislature’s watchdog agency, including an immediate “rapid response” review to determine what happened to these two children, Katz said.

OPEGA is an independent, nonpartisan agency directed by the committee. It evaluates the performance of state government programs and compliance with laws and regulations.

OPEGA PROBE

Beth Ashcroft, the director of OPEGA, said the office had jurisdiction to review both state and local government entities and would do so with a goal of reporting back to the committee in early May. Ashcroft said OPEGA would try to determine what reporting of abuse occurred, the involvement of DHHS, what services were being offered to the families or if any protective actions were implemented.

She said the second part of the OPEGA inquiry would be guided in part by what was discovered in the initial rapid response review, and also would consider things such as staffing levels in the DHHS’ Child Protective Services agency. Ashcroft said OPEGA would try to determine if there were breakdowns in communications or training as well.

“These are good people,” Hymanson said of state Child Protective Services workers. “I know there’s a lot of heartache in the department now. I consider the child protective workers to be first responders. They are going into places that are always bad. It’s not even like being a fireman, where you get to get a cat out of a tree sometimes and everyone’s happy. Nothing is happy about the work that they do.”

She said the goal was to identify gaps or flaws in the system and to fill those gaps so other tragedies can be prevented. “Let’s help them to do their job better by creating an understanding of the system that would make that work.”

Maine’s Child Protective Services caseworker workforce has remained at 145 from 2011 to 2016, but the caseload per worker has increased, according to data reported to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

LIVES AT STAKE

The number of completed reports per CPS caseworker per year in Maine increased from 55 in 2011 to 73 in 2016 – the latest year for which federal data is available.

Also, according to Maine DHHS, the reports of suspected child abuse and neglect have jumped by 31 percent since 2008 – from 6,313 cases to 8,279 cases in 2016.

Committee members said OPEGA needed to work swiftly because lives are at stake. “What scares the hell out of me is kids being tortured right this minute as we sit here,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham. “And the only reason we don’t know it is because they are not dead yet. This review not only needs to start, but it needs to start immediately.”

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, worried the state had lost the ability to protect children in similar situations.

“Right now there are kids that are suffering,” Mastraccio said. “And do we have the processes in place right now to help them? And I’m not convinced that we do anymore.”

Katz also noted that there were ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions that needed to be protected.

“We don’t want to overstep that line where we would be, in any way, impacting the ability of the attorney general to bring that prosecution or any rights of any of the defendants,” Katz said.

“We know we want to be sensitive to confidentiality here, and the confidentiality laws that are in place in human services are mostly there to protect the victim, the child, and unfortunately we don’t have to worry about that part of it.”

ATTORNEY GENERAL WEIGHS IN

Katz said that there are other children in the families where the deaths occurred who are now in state custody and said that they deserve the benefits of confidentiality. But for those charged with the deaths, “One would think the public’s need for them to have confidentiality is somewhat limited.”

The committee received a letter from Maine Attorney General Janet Mills on Friday morning that urged the lawmakers to approve the OPEGA investigation.

“The violent deaths of two children … raise significant questions about the responses of the Department of Health and Human Services and other public entities and agencies responsible for protecting our children,” wrote Mills, who is running for governor. “My office is prosecuting family members for the deaths of these two children. The prosecution, however, should not deter an inquiry into the facts, systems and processes that may have contributed to the tragic loss of these young victims.”

Mills, a Democrat, said the law governing OPEGA’s operations provides safeguards to protect confidential information and allow the agency to conduct its investigation without impairing criminal or civil court proceedings.

Katz believes all involved will cooperate in the probe, but also reminded his committee members they were the only legislative committee with subpoena powers and could compel testimony under a court order if need be.

“Hopefully that won’t be at all necessary here,” Katz said. “But I am sure we will do it, if it is. The public is asking we get to the bottom of this and we will get to the bottom of this.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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