Maine’s Republican lawmakers say the systemic — and sometimes deadly — failures of Maine’s child welfare agency require the state to expand oversight and drastically restructure the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Maine’s largest government agency.
“We, as an entire caucus, look forward to working with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle and frankly the Governor’s office to come up with real meaningful solutions that are going to get our number of child fatalities down to zero,” Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook) said Tuesday.
“Success is not more money in the budget or an expansion of government here or there,” he said. “Success is when no more children are dying in the State of Maine that are within the system.”
Tackling the broken child welfare system is the first major legislative item from Republicans this year, but their Tuesday news conference was overshadowed when Democratic Gov. Janet Mills joined forces with Democratic lawmakers and abortion advocates to propose ending Maine’s 30-year ban on late-term abortions.
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The GOP’s proposed reforms come just weeks after Maine’s Child Welfare Ombudsman, an independent government watchdog, released a devastating report highlighting systemic and ongoing failures and mismanagement at DHHS’s Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS).
Republicans said their plan will include a combination of bills that would strengthen the Child Welfare Ombudsman’s office, enhance legislative oversight of agency management, and provide more funding for child welfare case workers, beyond the $15 million already earmarked in Mills’ recent budget proposal.
But the largest part of the reform would be the wholesale restructuring of DHHS, the vast agency responsible for administering welfare programs, running MaineCare, child welfare, and more.
Rather than existing as a small part of DHHS’s sprawling bureaucracy, OCFS would become a standalone agency under the GOP proposal. The move would undo an administrative merger that took place in 2004, restoring the OCFS as a cabinet level position with dedicated leadership.
Although Democrats have yet to respond to all of the elements of the Republican policy pitch, Mills and DHHS personnel have appeared reluctant to sign on for a total revamp of the agency. In a public radio interview a week earlier, Mills indicated she was disinclined to support splitting OCFS off, and, in a statement, DHHS officials defended maintaining OCFS as a part of DHHS.
“The integration of the Office of Child and Family Services with other offices within DHHS has improved efforts at preventing and responding to child abuse and neglect,” the agency said.
Claims that previous reforms have addressed OCFS’s failures aren’t likely to be persuasive considering a the OCFS’ demonstrated record of failure. When the GOP proposals enter committee hearings, the 2022 report from Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi will be hard for policymakers and the media to ignore.
In her report, Alberi found serious and ongoing deficiencies in how OCFS investigates child welfare cases.
Those deficiencies include case workers and managers failing to assess dangers to children, including through the monitoring of parent substance use disorders. Alberi also found investigators often failed to obtain existing medical and criminal records, which would have shed light on harm done to children and the risk of future harm. Investigators often relied on incomplete information from previous investigations and failed to interview adults in a child’s living environment, she found.
The report also found problems with OCFS family reunifications following state interventions, such as OCFS keeping a child in state care too long or not long enough. More than half of all the cases she reviewed had serious issues, and she assessed that the agency was not headed in a more effective direction. The increase over the past four years of cases handled by the ombudsman suggests the child welfare crisis in Maine is getting worse, not better.
Mills took executive action last year to give more power to Alberi’s office, Republicans say more can and should be done. Their push comes with urgency following the deaths of multiple children who were part of failed state interventions.
The problems Alberi flagged in her most recent report may be more severe, but the idea that OCFS is failing to provide for the well-being of at-risk children should not be news to policymakers.
For example, the 2018 ombudsman report, which included the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy, found a “heightened number of issues with reunification practice.” Those two deaths triggered what Alberi described as enormous changes within the DHHS and OCFS, including new investigative techniques that were implemented in Nov. 2018.
But Alberi’s evaluation of OCFS’s investigations in 2021 would suggest those new techniques haven’t improved the agency.
Inquiries handled by the ombudsman had been increasingly steadily since 2018, but the caseload grew sharply from Oct. 2020 to Sept. 2021, thanks in large part to the State’s economic lockdowns and government-mandated school closures.
Those policies increased economic hardship and adult substance use disorders at the same time they disrupted children’s education, forcing children to remain at home more than they normally would have. The school closures also prevented at-risk children from regularly entering a public school setting where abuse is often first spotted.
As a result, inquiries to the ombudsman increased over the previous fiscal year period by 91 inquiries. That number increased by a similar amount from Oct. 1, 2021 to Sept. 30, 2022, the most recent period.
In previous years, DHHS responded disputing some of the assertions Alberi made in her report. This year, it did not respond in the report.
In a recent radio address, Sen. Jeff Timberlake (R-Androscoggin) highlighted the case of the children who have more recently died as the result of failed state interventions, including the case of Maddox Williams, a 3-year-old from Stockton Springs who was found dead in 2021. That year, Maine set a record for the most child fatalities due to abuse or neglect in the home.
“We need to do everything we can to make sure that we do not lose another child here in the state of Maine,” Timberlake said.
Timberlake backed similar legislation in the last legislature only to see it die in the House of Representatives.
He said Williams case pointed up the real need for reform.
He said OCFS failed to effectively intervene despite reports that Williams’ two-year-old sister was found to have ingested methadone, that Williams’ was in his father’s custody while he performed a burglary, that Williams suffered medical neglect, and that he was found in a vehicle after his father was busted for drunk driving.
Williams’ mother was convicted of murder.
DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell gave a statement to Maine Public in response to the GOP plan that said the Mills administration “acted swiftly beginning in 2019 to address longstanding weaknesses in Maine’s child welfare system, while also developing strategies to ensure sustainable improvements to child safety and health over the long term.”
Although former Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond has been a prominent supporter of some of the policies that will be in the Republican bill, Mills, House Speaker Rachel Ross (D-Portland) and Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) haven’t said definitively whether they’ll support such a proposal.
Diamond has formed a new non-profit foundation that will — Walk a Mile in Their Shoes — that will promote improved child welfare policies in Maine.
“We acknowledge that within the OFCS there are many sincere people who have and continue to dedicate themselves to the well- being of children under their care and jurisdiction,” the foundation’s website states.
“However, we also are fully aware of the serious ongoing problems within the management at OCFS, including their obvious struggle in making appropriate decisions to keep children safe as was illustrated by the record number of child deaths in 2021.”