Inside Augusta

Government Oversight Committee meets to address flaws in Maine’s child welfare system

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In a July 20 meeting, the Government Oversight Committee (GOC) met and further discussed its ongoing investigation into the Office of Child and Family Services and Child Protective Services.

After roughly three hours of testimony from legislators and members of the public who have interacted with the state’s child welfare system, which largely documented alleged failures, the committee turned to reports from the state.

Evident Change, the vendor OCFS uses to provide the assessments case workers use to help make some decisions in child welfare cases, walked committee members through the process it uses to create its assessments.

According to Dierdre O’Connor, an associate director for strategic initiatives at the company, Maine uses six of the company’s assessments for intake assessments, safety assessments, risk assessments, case planning, reunification, and for risk assessment, used to determine whether families will have future interaction with CPS within a given period of time following the close of a case.

O’Connor briefed committee members on how case workers fill out risk and safety assessments while working a case and work with families to understand the decisions being made, in addition to how the process used to make recommendations as part of a risk assessment uses actuarial science and data from prior cases to inform risk levels.

O’Connor received several questions from committee members relating to the assessments, which were first developed in 2016, and how they adjusted to incorporate new information from more recent CPS cases. 

Sen. Richard Bennett (R-Oxford) also questioned whether the data used in the tools were biased because they rely on a self-selected sample, and asked whether Evident Change and child welfare offices within the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) can do anything to combat this by being more proactive in communities and interacting with potential cases.

O’Connor stated that the risk assessment tool is not a general tool and is only valid for families currently under investigation. She also said having another tool to identify families that would benefit from prevention services is being looked at by other jurisdictions and her company is involved in conversations to develop one.

Bobbi Johnson, associate director of Child Welfare, also said OCFS is actively involved in identifying gaps in its current services and how to address them, but does not currently have an active tool that can be used for assessment.

The committee then reviewed a memo provided by DHHS and OCFS, which provided updated quarterly hiring data and information on CPS intake screening and response assessments, risk assessment, and reunification assessment.

According to DHHS, there are currently approximately 50 vacant case worker positions, including 16 case worker positions that were added as part of the most recently passed budget.

The committee also debated how to move forward with an attempt to obtain confidential records from child welfare services related to child fatalities that have occurred since May 2021.

A memo from Assistant Attorney General Ariel Gannon addressed to OCFS director Todd Landry, dated June 15, noted that state and federal disclosure laws likely allow the information to be released to the Office of Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability (OPEGA), which conducts investigations on behalf of the committee, but not to the GOC directly.

OPEGA analyst Scott Farwell informed the committee that state statute requires DHHS to release child death information following the conclusion of relevant criminal judicial proceedings and that the GOC might be able to avoid a possible court battle to force DHHS to turn over the records by waiting for the conclusion of pending trials.

After debate, the committee voted unanimously to send a letter to DHHS requesting access to the child fatality files, which they would view in executive session to avoid privacy issues. The committee also directed the letter to state that, while they are open to discussion with the department, they will continue to move forward with their attempts to obtain the files if DHHS isn’t cooperative.

The committee also voted unanimously to direct OPEGA to conduct research into family reunification and produce an evaluative report to be delivered in January 2023.

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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