Lawmakers held a public hearing Wednesday on a watchdog agency’s findings that the state made “errors on top of errors” in the months leading up to the death of 6-week-old Jaden Harding in 2021.

Child advocates and people with experience with the state’s child welfare system told lawmakers that the case reflects common themes that also were present in other recent child deaths. And lawmakers made it clear that they are looking for specific ways to improve the system, which workers say is hampered by ineffective leadership and a high rate of turnover that leads to high caseloads and burnout.

It was the Government Oversight Committee’s first meeting since Todd Landry resigned as the director of the Office of Child and Family Services, which oversees child protection. Landry had been grilled by the committee and was facing mounting criticism from caseworkers when he resigned Monday for personal reasons.

Gov. Janet Mills has called for a national search to replace Landry.

Next Wednesday, Department of Health and Human Services Director Jeanne Lambrew and Acting Child and Family Services Director Bobbi Johnson will testify before the oversight committee.

A report issued Nov. 15 by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability detailed how the state missed warning signs leading up to the 2021 death of Harding, whose father, Ronald Harding, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison in September.


Although Ronald Harding did not have a history with the child protective service, Jaden’s mother, Kayla Hartley had a record with the state dating to 2014 in connection with her older children from a previous relationship. That history included substance exposed infants and reports of physical and sexual abuse, but there is no evidence the children were ever removed from the home.

The State of Maine Office Building in Augusta houses offices for the Department of Health and Human Services. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Police also reported to the state that Hartley, who was not charged in the death of her son, also appeared to struggle with mental health following the death of a relative in 2020. Child protection staff followed up and closed the case after they were satisfied that out-of-state relatives were staying with Hartley and helping her. They never followed up after the relatives left.

No family members of Jaden Harding spoke before the committee Wednesday.

The oversight committee ordered OPEGA to conduct a review of the department’s actions in connection with four children who died within weeks of each other in the summer of 2021. All of the families had prior involvement with child protective services. And Harding’s report was the third case review presented to the committee.

The committee also has been hearing from front-line workers, including caseworkers, who say they’re working in a “broken system,” because of a lack of services for mental health and substance use and staffing shortages.

They talked about a downward spiral where the state is having trouble hiring and retaining caseworkers. That’s leading to higher caseloads and work for existing staff, who must pick up the cases of departing caseworkers and work additional mandatory overnight shifts supervising children staying in emergency rooms and hotels, while being expected to work the next day.


Mark Moran, a licensed social worker and the chair of Maine’s Child death and Serious Injury Review Panel, said Wednesday that the Harding case mirrored themes in other cases the panel has reviewed. Caseworkers often don’t have time to complete a full review of a family’s history with the state, which can go back generations, and instead focus too much on a specific complaint, he said.

“The length and complexity of a family’s CPS history and the fairly consistent inability of OCFS staff to adequately review, analyze and incorporate familial patterns into a current investigation has been an ongoing problem for many years,” Moran said.


Also, Moran said that caseworkers often have an inability or unwillingness to confront a parent or caregiver over inconsistencies about a child injury. That stems from caseworkers’ dual role as an investigator and as a social worker trying to earn the family’s trust so they will engage in services, he said.

“Regardless of the reason, to avoid such confrontation is to sacrifice that element of the investigative role, potentially at the child’s peril,” he said.

Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi also drew parallels to previous reports, which have shown the state struggles to identify and address safety risks.


An outside review of cases found that caseworkers often don’t seek preliminary protection orders to remove children from homes because they don’t think they will be granted by the courts.

But Alberi said court records show that judges have approved more than 99% of those requests dating to 2017. More data analysis like this, she said, is “the first step in a systemwide change of culture and expectations between the department and the courts.”

“The question around the courts granting PPOs was relatively easy to answer, and there is no way to know if this contributed to the lack of intervention in Jaden’s case, but my hope is that we can use this information to help children in cases now,” Alberi said.

Other advocates, however, warned against moving too aggressively toward removals.

Melissa Hackett, a policy associate at the Maine Children’s Alliance and the coordinator of the Maine Child Welfare Action Network, said federal policy shifted toward keeping families together after Black and Indigenous children were removed at higher rates nationwide than white children. And children in foster care have poor outcomes in terms of education, employment and family relations, she said.

Research shows that children are best served by remaining in their family, rather than being placed in congregate or foster care, where abuse and neglect can also occur, she said.

“Research has shown us that removal of children from their families compounds the trauma of abuse and neglect,” Hackett said. “We must prevent the pendulum swing that we keep talking about. With effective policies, programs and supports, we can reduce child abuse and neglect and prevent the trauma of family separation.”

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