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How Maine Handles Child Abuse Is Being Called Into Question

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Does the state of Maine do enough to protect children? That question is at the heart of a state investigation after the death of a 10-year-old girl earlier this year. State prosecutors say she had endured months of torture at home. The girl's mother and stepfather pleaded not guilty to depraved indifference and murder. Maine Public Radio's Patty Wight reports that the victim's former school and even neighbors had tried to warn authorities.

PATTY WIGHT, BYLINE: It was mid-afternoon on the last Sunday in February when Marissa Kennedy's stepfather called 911 to report that the girl was unresponsive. According to an affidavit, Kennedy was dead by the time police arrived. Her mother and stepfather, Sharon and Julio Carrillo, eventually admitted to beating her for months. A medical examiner confirmed that Kennedy died from acute and chronic abuse. Her death left many in Maine asking how this could happen and no one know. But some people say they did.

RANDY POULIN: Most everybody around here's witnessed it.

WIGHT: Randy Poulin is a former neighbor of the family in Bangor. Poulin says the day the Kennedy family moved into a nearby apartment he saw the stepfather hit the girl after she dropped a teddy bear. That wasn't the only time, he says, that he and others saw abuse.

POULIN: One of the tenants that kicked in their door because he heard the violence. And, I mean, Bangor cops have been here more than once. A lot of times they couldn't get in. I never seen them arrest him, though.

WIGHT: Local police confirmed in a written statement that they did have contact with Kennedy's family but that officers did not observe injury or behavior suggesting the girl was in a dangerous environment. But staff at her former school suspected abuse. Bangor schools superintendent also issued a written statement saying that when Kennedy was a student last school year, staff made reports to the state on a number of occasions. The family moved to another district last summer, and that school has not commented on whether they suspected or reported abuse. But the revelation that Maine's Department of Health and Human Services was notified about Kennedy now raises questions about whether the case was handled properly.

CHRISTINE ALBERI: Of course the questions are the adults that were around Marissa, whether they're from the department or somewhere else, what did they know? What did they see?

WIGHT: Christine Alberi is Maine's child welfare ombudsman. She investigates complaints about the state's system for protecting children from abuse and neglect. In her last four annual reports she found multiple cases where the state failed to recognize the risk to children in their parents' care. Alberi says that can happen when there's a breakdown in investigation protocol like failing to interview all of the adults in a home. It can also happen when protocol is followed.

ALBERI: But then failing to recognize that a child is at risk, failing to put all the pieces together.

WIGHT: Maine's ability to do accurate investigations has also come into question regarding another child's death last December. Kendall Chick was 4 years old when, according to initial reports, she died from blunt force trauma to her abdomen. Her foster mother is charged with murder.

BILL DIAMOND: What scares the hell out of me is kids being tortured right this minute as we sit here. And the only reason we don't know it is because they're not dead yet.

WIGHT: Democratic Senator Bill Diamond sits on Maine's Government Oversight Committee, which voted unanimously to launch an investigation into the state's handling of these cases. Maine's Department of Health and Human Services is also conducting an internal investigation. Commissioner Ricker Hamilton acknowledges training has been a perennial issue but says at this point it's unclear what needs to change to prevent these kinds of deaths in the future.

RICKER HAMILTON: The answer may not always be more staffing, namely more money. It may be, can we be more effective, more efficient?

WIGHT: Governor Paul LePage says the department suffers from a lack of resources and employee burnout. The number of caseworkers who investigate allegations of abuse and neglect has remained the same for years, but each of their caseloads has increased from 55 a year to 73. Those investigations can take about a month to complete. For NPR News, I'm Patty Wight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.