Sunday, March 4, 2018

DHHS and the Death of Marissa Kennedy - How one high profile child abuse case will lead to a spike in the number of child removals in Maine


Today I'm going to explain a pattern that I have noticed during my years of blogging about child welfare issues and how that pattern is playing out today.  How a high profile child abuse case can be used as a springboard to promote knee jerk reactions from the legislatures and policy changes for better or worse.

I'm doing this because due to recent events in Maine, I believe it's going to happen again and not for the better.  In fact, I believe we're in for a major shift in policy in regards to the way Maine's Department of Health and Human Services handles child abuse cases.  Mainly that they're going to grow and there will be a large spike in the number of DHHS Child Removals leading to a large spike in the number of foster children in Maine over the next year.

All the signs are there.  Let me explain.

The case

I'm sure anybody in Maine must have by now heard of Marissa Kennedy, the 10 year old child abuse victim who died last week.
Now to anybody with a heart, this is a horrific case.  To Maine's local news media, it's a big juicy story.  To Maine's Child Welfare system (DHHS Children and Family Services) however, it's a growth opportunity.  

Again let me explain.

DHHS is about to go under the microscope.  This will happen because a number of people including members of Maine's Legislature are of the belief that DHHS could have / should have / would have done more to save this child prior to her death.  The Bangor Daily News is reporting that school officials reported suspected abuse to DHHS.  Police had been to the house on multiple occasions.  etc. 
Look at the above headline.  "Did officials miss warning signs about ex-New Windsor couple accused of killing child?"  Perhaps.  It happens.  Unfortunately some kids fall through the cracks.  It's sad when it happens but when it does questions are raised.  Could DHHS have done more to save this child?  

Some people in high places want to know.
Lawmakers and children’s advocates ratcheted up the pressure on the LePage administration Friday, calling for an investigation of how it handled reports of what state police say was a case of prolonged and severe abuse that led to the death of a 10-year-old girl in Stockton Springs.
Source >> Lawmakers press LePage administration for answers about abuse case that led to girl’s death
It doesn't stop with this one case.  The news media is also reporting that child abuse is increasing in Maine.   

This makes it a systematic problem.  That means that it's much larger than this one case.

Now when you mix all of this up into today's reality and add in things like Governor LePage cutting funding to child abuse prevention programs...

You have a recipe for disaster...  
which leads to policy change.  I.e.  They will start removing kids more quickly and it will be more difficult for parents to get them back, thus the system will grow.


This isn't the first time anything like this has happened.  In fact, this child abuse death leading to policy change has happened twice in Maine over the last 20 years or so with the most famous case being that of 6 year old Logan Marr.  After Logan's untimely death in a foster home back in January of 2001, Maine reformed it's child welfare system.  The new focus was on helping the families to keep kids safe in the home.

By January of 2011, Maine was celebrating the changes.  DHHS was considered a national model child welfare system and leaders at keeping kids safe in the home.
The states accomplishments under Governor John Baldacci included using kinship care instead of foster homes in more cases and increasing family preservation services so that the parents could become better parents instead of tearing the family apart and throwing the kid into foster care.  

Ultimately the number of foster kids in Maine was pretty much cut in half.  This was a good thing because prior to this Maine had one of the most notorious "Take the child and run" child welfare systems in the country.  

The second major high profile child abuse death that promoted a shift in Maine's CPS policies and procedures happened shortly after Governor LePage took office.  In May of 2012, 2 1/2 month old Ethan Henderson was thrown into a chair by his father Gordon Collins-Faunce.  Collins-Faunce had himself spent a good part of his life in foster care as well as a history of mental health issues.  He did not come out of it undamaged.

When asked for comment on this case, Lepage replied...
LePage told a television station Wednesday that he supports the death penalty “for those that kill babies” and feels DHHS has “gone from one extreme to another” when it decides whether to remove a child from a home in which abuse is suspected.
The department has been criticized in the past for being too quick to remove a child, LePage said, but now, “sometimes we’re putting them back too quickly and sometimes we’re not taking them out fast enough.”
Source >>  DHHS won’t release information on dead baby
And by October of the same year, the pendulum had swing back the other way, with "drug abuse" being the culprit. 
A spike in the number of children entering state custody because their parents are abusing bath salts has forced the state’s Office of Child and Family Services to add almost $1 million to its budget this year to accommodate 200 additional children living in foster care and in the homes of relatives.
Source >> Parents’ bath salts abuse sends more children to state custody
A year later, Commissioner Mary Mayhew was asking the legislature for an additional $4.2 million dollars because of the inflating number of foster kids in the state.  I must add that foster care is the much more expensive alternative.  The cheaper and better way is to help the family with needed services such as drug treatment, mental health services, etc.
At the same time LePage cut services to families.  This was based on his strong aversion to welfare.
These two cases that I have just mentioned caused the state to review it's existing policies, causing the pendulum to swing one way then the other.

Anyway, I could go on and on about that, but then we'd never get to how it's happening today.

Back to the present

So here we are today.  Things are heating up.  The court of public opinion passing judgement on the parents of little Marissa Kennedy.  The legislature calling for an investigation into the handling of this and several other child abuse cases.  Family preservation services that help to keep kids safe in their homes are becoming a thing of the past.  So what happens next?

Well DHHS will probably try to cover their tracks, shuffle around a supervisor and a CPS worker or two, and they will change their policies on how things shoudl be handled and they will be much more quick to remove children.  It's better to be safe than sorry, but that unfortunately leads to kids being removed who would do just as well in their own homes with a little bit of help and support from the community.  It will also lead to it being more difficult for parents to get their kids back out of care after they have been removed.  The legislature will throw more money at the problem and therefore the system will grow.

CPS workers tend to get jittery when they are under the watchful eye of news reporters.  God forbid anything like this happens again.

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