There is a lot we still don’t know about the circumstances behind two child-abuse deaths last winter, but we do know this:

Maine failed to protect Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy from the horrific mistreatment that ended their lives. And right now we are probably failing other children who are unnecessarily suffering abuse and neglect because their cases are lost in an unresponsive child welfare system.

So it was a relief to see Gov. Paul LePage testify before the Government Oversight Committee last week, acknowleging the state’s collective failure and pledging that the alarm sounded by these two little girls’ deaths would not be ignored.

This is the right place for LePage to focus his energy in his last eight months in office because he is uniquely positioned to make a difference.

The fact that LePage’s name won’t be on the ballot in November enables him to sidestep politics in an election year. And he won’t have to fight alone.

Unlike most of the big issues that confound Augusta, this one is not already mired in a partisan standoff. Democrats, Republicans and independents all want to protect children, and, for once, the state has surplus funds to implement changes, if that’s what’s needed. The governor said he would be willing to call the Legislature back for a special session to deal with child abuse prevention, and there is powerful momentum behind making something positive out of these two tragic stories.


To marshal these forces, the first step should be a frank assessment of what is going wrong in the child protective system. Before anyone starts talking about solutions, there needs to be a clearer understanding of the problem.

An investigation by the Legislature’s watchdog agency tried to provide that, but fell short. Because child protective records are confidential, and both deaths are subject to criminal investigations, the public and their representatives still don’t have a complete understanding of what went wrong in these cases and whether the problems are widespread.

The governor and his appointees in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services have access to more information, but that knowledge needs to be broadly shared to ensure the kind of team effort required to solve a problem of this size. There are thousands of reported cases of abuse each year. These two cases aside, what is the state’s record in responding to these reports?

The governor has already proposed ideas, including making it a crime for teachers, doctors and others to fail to report suspicions of abuse. But evidence that has been made public through news reports indicates that the state did not remove Marissa Kennedy from her home, even after people reported their suspicions that she was being abused. A backlog of uninvestigated cases at DHHS, as well as long wait times on the abuse reporting hotline, would suggest that the real problem may be the state agency’s inability to process complaints — not the public’s unwillingness to report.

LePage has also proposed updating the DHHS computer system, which is long overdue. But the department needs to be more transparent about what it can’t do currently and what it could do with better technology. A new computer won’t make up for understaffing or a lack of employee training.

And LePage wants to change the state policy that favors placing vulnerable children with family members rather than sending them to foster homes. That change could be the solution, or it could be part of the solution, or it could have nothing to do with the real problem and turn out to help no one. But it’s impossible to know what the effect of such a policy change would be without a thorough study of what’s really happening in these cases.

We hope LePage will work with DHHS and the Legislature to make sure that other children don’t suffer the same fate as Kendall and Marissa. His leadership on this issue could make a big difference. We hope he will seize the moment.

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