Commentary

DHHS failures prove: It’s time for child welfare reform

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If you are concerned about a child being neglected or abused, call Maine’s 24-hour hotline at 800-452-1999 or 711 to speak with a child protective specialist. Calls may be made anonymously. For more information, visit maine.gov/dhhs/ocfs/cw/reporting_abuse.

Talks for child welfare reform have heated up in recent weeks, and rightfully so. The current system is not working.

A 3-year-old boy named Maddox Williams died Sunday from blunt force trauma, and his mother has been charged with his murder. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) had dealt with Maddox and his parents on several occasions before, and it is a tragedy his premature death could possibly have been prevented.

According to the Bangor Daily News, police notified DHHS at least twice of incidents in which Maddox’s father, Andrew Williams, was neglecting the child and committing crimes in his presence, before his tragic death earlier this week.

Three children, including Maddox, under the age of 4 have died just in the past month in Maine at the hands of abusive parents. DHHS said it would bring in Casey Family Programs, a national group whose aim is to limit the need for foster care, to investigate the deaths.

A 6-week-old infant from Brewer was allegedly shaken to death by his father. A mother in Old Town, Hillary Goding, was charged with manslaughter in the death of her 3-year-old daughter, named Hailey.

Jessica Williams, Maddox’s mother, was arrested Wednesday and charged with his murder in Stockton Springs.

The job of DHHS is to prevent things like this from happening, to identify and help fix potentially dangerous parent-child relationships.

As illustrated above, in a graph composed of data from DHHS, the number of children suffering maltreatment is on the rise in Maine.

Sadly, this is not the first time the Department has failed to act and fulfill its duty to abused children. There have been multiple occasions where children have died at the hands of their caregivers, despite having had previous interactions with DHHS.

In February 2018, Marissa Kennedy was brutally murdered by both of her parents. It has recently come to light that DHHS had received 25 different reports detailing her abuse in the 16 months preceding her death. The reports came from her school, medical and mental health professionals, police and neighbors.

And still, the Department failed to act. During those 16 months, there were multiple investigations opened into the family but all of them were closed with no action taken. The Department did not even confirm the abuse until after Marissa’s death.

So the question becomes, what can we do? What kind of reforms can we enact to prevent horrific tragedies like these from happening in Maine?

Well, the answer, at least partially, lies in the past.

On Jan. 31, 2001, Logan Marr was senselessly killed by her foster mother. Her death was a catalyst for child welfare reform in Maine, and led to the state becoming one of the nation’s leaders in the subject.

The state began placing fewer children in foster care while simultaneously placing children who could not be with their parents with relatives instead of random foster parents.

By 2011, per the Bangor Daily News, the amount of children in foster care had been cut in half, and the number of children taken from their homes had dropped 30 percent.

The same year Marissa died, so did another child, Kendall Chick. In response, lawmakers allocated an additional $21 million to DHHS and increased the number of caseworkers trained and hired. They also passed measures to limit the state’s need to attempt to reunify the child with their parents when it’s not in the child’s best interest.

Following Kennedy’s death, though, the number of children separated from their parents began to increase, as did reports of child abuse and neglect. The additional funding and caseworkers did not seem to help, as the number of cases increased as well, leaving each worker with roughly the same workload as before.

Though some policies of the past have not worked as well as some others, the message the last month of deaths has sent is clear: it is time to act.

This session, though, there was a significant proposed piece of legislation on this front: LD 1263, sponsored by Bill Diamond (D-Windham). Diamond recently spoke about the shortcomings of DHHS and its decision to bring in an outside group to investigate the recent child deaths.

His bill would have established a new agency, separate from DHHS, in the state of Maine, called the Department of Child and Family Services. It died, though, between chambers, with the Senate voting to pass it and the House voting to accept the majority ought not to pass report.

If the tragedies of the last month show us anything, it is that the current child protection system is drastically failing, and it must be reformed. How many more unwarranted, innocent child deaths must there be before we take meaningful action to fix it?

About Nick Linder

Nicholas Linder, of Cincinnati, is a communications Intern for Maine Policy Institute. He is going into his second year of studying finance and public policy analysis at The Ohio State University. On campus, he is involved with Students Consulting for Nonprofit Organizations and Business for Good.

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