Diagnosing abuse requires collaboration and expert advice, children’s advocates say

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Hailey Ann Goding loved everything that glittered.

The 3-year-old also loved her pet chickens and insisted on taking them to McDonald’s for chicken nuggets. The blonde-haired girl was barely starting to take an interest in owls when her short life ended.

Hailey’s mother, Hillary Goding, called 911 at 10:48 p.m. on June 4, reporting that her daughter was unresponsive and was not breathing. Police later learned that Goding had waited 20 hours to seek help even as her daughter’s breathing became harsh and her body became limp.

Hailey died, police said, after ingesting fentanyl. Her 28-year-old mother was arrested and charged with manslaughter. It was not the first time that the child had been exposed to drugs in her home in the Old Town. A year earlier, Hailey was also in need of medical attention in an episode that had been reported to the state’s child welfare system.

It is not known what type of investigation social workers from the Department of Health and Human Services conducted in the May 2020 incident or why they concluded that Hailey – then 2 – was safe in her home.

The toddler’s death is one of four child homicides this summer that occurred after state child welfare workers learned of a problem at home.

Disturbing trends

These deaths were not anomalies.

According to a recently released DHHS report, 143 children in Maine died of neglect, abuse, or accidents from 2007 through May 2021 and each was known to the state’s child welfare system. In many cases, social workers had cared for the family for several years. The report excludes the four recent homicides.

Of the 143 deaths, 35 were due to co-sleep; 34 suicide, natural or undetermined causes; 30 were homicides; 26 were accidental; and 18 were due to SUID – Sudden Unexplained Infant Death Syndrome.

“In retrospect, it seems easy to determine that these fatal abuse cases are full of red flags,” said Emily Douglas, an expert on domestic violence. “Social workers often see red flags working with families who neglect or abuse their child, but they often don’t know when the case goes into the red zone. “

Christine Alberi, Child Welfare Ombudsman for Maine, echoed Douglas’ concerns. Alberi has reviewed hundreds of incidents involving child abuse and neglect and has repeatedly cited cases putting children at risk due to inadequate child protection investigations.

“It’s frustrating because it’s always the same,” Alberi said. “There is a lack of prioritization on when children’s safety is at high risk, that is, at the beginning and at the end of cases. “

Training is often lacking for investigators

Flawed child protection investigations in Maine and across the country are often due to poorly trained social workers, said Douglas, who has studied child abuse and neglect for 20 years and studied at Muskie School of Public Service of Portland. After interviewing 1,000 child welfare social workers across the country, Douglas found that social workers lacked knowledge about fatal risk factors.

“Social workers have a lot of misconceptions about children who die at home,” said Douglas, who now chairs the department of child welfare and advocacy at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “Many tend to think that most children die of abuse, but the majority die of neglect.”

Social workers also have misunderstandings as to who is generally responsible for the death of a child at home.

“More often than not, they think it’s the mother’s boyfriend,” Douglas said. “But the responsible person is usually the biological or biological parent of the child, and more often than not the mother.”

Neglect of death supervision

Neglect, especially when it comes to supervision, is the biggest risk factor for most children, Douglas said.

“Children are neglected by being exposed to the elements, or by not receiving enough food or medical attention,” said Douglas. “But the deadliest type of neglect is supervisor negligence.”

In fatal negligence, the death of the child results in the parent’s inability to ensure the safety of their children. Children exposed to drugs at home, toddlers falling out of windows, drowning in bathtubs or toddlers accidentally shooting themselves are deadly consequences of inadequate or negligent supervision, said Douglas .

Co-sleep deaths, in which a parent accidentally suffocates an infant, are also considered neglect, Douglas said, and often involve caregivers with substance use issues.

Of the 143 children who died from 2007 to 2020, co-sleep deaths accounted for 25% of deaths. Co-sleep deaths fell from six in 2019 to three in 2020, after DHHS partnered with hospitals, healthcare professionals and community agencies to educate parents about the dangers of unsafe sleeping conditions .

In his research on child protection workers, Douglas has found that the risks of co-sleeping and other harmful behaviors are sometimes minimized because social workers say they are forced to find “strengths.” in the parents they are evaluating.

“I’ve seen cases where the parent uses substances and sleeps with their baby,” said Douglas, “But the social worker says,“ The mother really loves her child and it feels good to sleep with them, and I see that as a force. ‘ “

Whether the mother loves her child or not, the child is in danger, said Douglas.

“The idea is that if a family has strength, they have to negate the risks,” said Douglas. “And that’s not how it works.”

In several cases involving those 143 child deaths, social workers in Maine have found a history of neglect, abuse, domestic violence and substance abuse. Although DHHS reports mention that the parents in these cases were referred to community agencies and services, it is not clear whether the caregivers cooperated and followed the treatment.

In her 2020 report, Child Protection Ombudsman Alberi noted that despite the recently implemented structured decision-making tool implemented by the DHHS, which determines whether allegations of neglect and abuse require attention. Child Protection Investigation and Possible Intervention, “The same basic investigative practice problems that have been repeated for many years still occur: failing to recognize risk when the evidence is clear. “

Alberi cited several cases in which babies and children have been exposed to violence in dangerous homes:

Protection officers reunited a child who had been placed in state custody too quickly, without reassessing the parent and a new partner. The couple have had a new baby together and the infant’s safety has not been adequately assessed. The baby died of injuries sustained by one or both parents a few months after the case was closed.

An infant who was unable to gain weight and had fractured arms was subjected to unsupervised visits with a parent when it was not clear which caregiver inflicted the injuries to the baby.

Given the parent’s story, a trial placement with an infant started too early. Important issues such as the mother’s constant involvement in abusive family relationships, mental health issues and substance use were not addressed. The parent also refused to cooperate with DHHS.

In her role as the former Deputy Attorney General of the Child Protection Division from 1990 to 2011, Lou Ann Clifford handled numerous cases involving neglected and abused children. Social workers sometimes closed cases too quickly, she said, because they were unable to gather evidence.

“They would investigate a suspicion of abuse or neglect by a teacher and then they would go home and either the parent refused to speak or the child did not prove the abuse,” Clifford said . “It would drive me crazy because the case would be closed then.”

Clifford has often advised social workers to go to court and get a preliminary child protection order to get parents to cooperate.

“If you have concerns that seem valid from a healthcare professional or teacher, you can always ask for a prescription requiring parents to talk,” Clifford said. “We don’t have to wait for evil to happen. “

Clifford wonders if a court order would have saved Marissa Kennedy, 10, who was beaten to death in her Stockton Springs home by her mother and stepfather in February 2018.

“Social workers visited Marissa’s home several times, but never found out that she was in danger,” Clifford said. “The stepdad always had excuses why he couldn’t speak or why they couldn’t see Marissa.”

As the four child deaths this summer sparked investigations from state lawmakers and an outside body, DHHS spokesman Jackie Farwell said the department is “working hard do all we can to learn from recent child deaths and improve our approach to child protection. The death of a child is a tragic loss – for that child’s future, their family, their community and our state.

Need for reforms cited

State Senator Bill Diamond (D-Windham) is not convinced the DHHS will make the necessary changes. He has called for reforms to the child welfare agency since the death of 5-year-old Logan Marr, who was killed by his adoptive mother in 2001.

“For 20 years since Logan Marr’s death and now with these recent horrific deaths, they’ve been saying (they’re going) to make improvements,” Diamond said. “But that never really changes.”

To ensure the investigation and review continues, Diamond has planned a two-day event called “Walk a Mile in Their Shoes”. On September 28 and 29, Diamond visited six communities in Maine where children have died of abuse or neglect in recent years.

“We will come together in each community and have a listening session and a rally,” Diamond said ahead of the event.

The first session was held in the Old Town in memory of 3-year-old Hailey Goding. Diamond went on to five other towns to remember Logan Marr, Kendall Chick, Marissa Kennedy, Jayden Harding and Maddox Williams.

“If we don’t continue to bring this issue to the public and bring in details about the deaths of these children, then the bureaucracy wins, and it has won for a long time,” Diamond said. “It’s our job to remember and do all we can to protect our children. “


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