February 6

Thorndike mother pleads not guilty to burning son’s hand on stove

Michelle Dunworth, 30, scheduled for trial next month, will continue to have custody of her three children because there is nowhere else for them to go.

By Rachel Ohm rohm@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

A Thorndike mother accused of burning her son’s hand on a wood stove as punishment will continue to have custody of the child because authorities say there aren’t any other good options.

Michelle Dunworth, 30, is charged with endangering the welfare of a child and domestic violence assault after allegedly putting her 6-year-old son’s hand on a wood stove “so he would know what it feels like.” He had mistakenly pushed his sister into the stove, prompting the punishment, police said.

She entered a plea of not guilty in Waldo County District Court in Belfast on Tuesday, according to the district attorney’s office, and remains free on $500 bail.

The case is scheduled to go to trial next month while Dunworth’s 6-year-old son, a 7-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son remain in her custody, Waldo County Deputy District Attorney Eric J. Walker said Thursday.

The family recently moved to Maine from Kansas and there are no extended family members or friends that the children could have been placed with, Walker said.

“This was a very difficult situation and it wasn’t something we took lightly,” Walker said. “After talking with officials from DHHS and officers that handled the case, we determined that while we had lots of options, none of them were great.”

The Department of Health and Human Services has refused to comment on the case, citing confidentiality reasons. But Happy Kearns, a victim advocate for the Waldo County district attorney’s office said that there are many factors that go into whether a child is removed from a home.

The safety and best interest of the child are always put first, said Kearns. The determination is not made in connection with when, or if, a case goes to trial or even if there are criminal charges involved, she said. Rather, any allegation of child abuse will result in an investigation and the child will be removed immediately if further danger is a possibility, she said.

If families can be worked with to establish a safety plan and if there are adults to monitor and check on the well-being of the child, DHHS officials always prefer pursuing those options instead of removing a child from a home, which can be a very traumatic experience, said Kearns.

“To remove a child from the only home they know is the most radical thing you can do,” Kearns said. “Only if there is imminent risk or danger would that be done.”

Dunworth does not have a criminal history in Kansas, Walker said.

Authorities asked Dunworth whether she had any “dealings with Kansas child protective services,” to which she said nothing except “stuff the school made up,” according to the police affidavit.

Dunworth initially denied burning her son’s hand, instead saying that the children had both accidentally burned themselves on the stove. She also initially said she wasn’t in the same room when the burning occurred, but later said she grabbed her son’s hand when he burned himself, according to the affidavit.

A teacher at the boy’s school noticed a bandage on the boy’s hand and when she asked what happened he said his mother held his hand to the stove “so he would know what it feels like,” according to the affidavit.

The affidavit also states that, according to the children, Dunworth frequently punishes them by inflicting the same behavior on them that they are being punished for. Dunworth said she typically tells her children to take a time out when they misbehave.

Rachel Ohm— 612-2368 rohm@centralmaine.com

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