The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced Thursday that it will be making “structural changes” to the Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS).
DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew appointed Bobbi Johnson — who had served as the Acting Director of OCFS following the resignation of Todd Landry last November — to serve as the office’s permanent Director,
According to a Thursday press release from DHHS, Director Johnson will launch a “management review” of the Child Welfare Division of OCFS that will “examine the organization of the Child Welfare Division’s Central and District Offices, its communication processes, culture, leadership support, as well as specific questions such as how to best incorporate staff and partner input into the information technology system Katahdin.”
Katahdin is the computer program upon which Maine DHHS caseworkers rely to assess the risk a child in the system is facing, as well as to make decisions about whether or not a child should stay in, or be returned to, their biological home. Caseworkers have recently reported that overriding recommendations made by the program has been “discouraged” by management at DHHS.
The “rapid management audit” announced Thursday will be conducted by “an outside organization with expertise in Maine’s Child Welfare Division,” but the press release does not specify the name of the group tasked with completing this review.
As a result of this audit, a report is expected to be released by the end of March 2024 containing both short and long term recommendations for the office.
The statement from DHHS also explains that Children’s Behavioral Health Services (CBHS) will be moved to the Office of Behavioral Health (OBH) in order to more closely connect “children’s behavioral health with the continuum of behavioral health services for adults.”
“With the Governor and Commissioner supportive of restting this role, Director Johnson is positioned to make changes informed by front-line workers, aprtners and experts, and her own deep experience to promote the safety of children and the strength of biological, resource (i.e., foster), and adoptive families,” the press release states.
Maine DHHS and the OCFS have come under scrutiny in recent months over their continued failure to protect Maine’s most vulnerable children.
Public records obtained last year by the Maine Wire revealed concerns about the agency’s leadership and supervisors.
In responding to a complaint filed against her, a caseworker explained that she was overworked, overwhelmed, and dealing with cases transferred to her from other caseworkers who conducted incomplete investigations.
“I currently have 15 cases on my caseload and have expressed feeling overwhelmed and admitted to my superiors that I have been struggling to stay on top of tasks for the past several months,” the caseworker wrote. “Many of my cases were transferred to me in a severely neglected state (as well as having been opened already for a year) and as a new Caseworker, it has been very hard to get my cases on track given the unsustainable workload I have.”
The caseworker said she simply did not have the time to make the hours-long drives necessary to meet check-in protocols.
“I do not feel this should be held against me because I expressed needing help and it took almost a month to coordinate assistance,” she said. “I know I have strong Social Worker skills, but I feel the current environment at the Department is not conducive of success for the new/learning workers.”
According to the information contained in the 2022 Child Welfare Ombudsman Report, there has been a continued “downward trend in child welfare practice,” including “multiple instances where the Department did not recognize risk to children, both during investigations and reunification cases.”
The report identified two primary areas of concern for the Maine DHHS, namely the decision making surrounding both “investigations” and family “reunification.”
More specifically, the Ombudsman found that, among other things, “out of home parents [were] not contacted,” “police records, court orders, and other documents [were] not collected,” “parents [were] not asked to drug screen,” and that there was an “over-reliance on prior incomplete investigations.”
The Ombudsman also found that in 2022, “appropriate investigatory steps” were not always taken “to ensure that the correct decision [concerning reunification] is being made at the end of the case.”
The number of child fatalities on the watch of DHHS has been increasing for more than a decade now.
In 2007 — the first year for which child fatality data is available — seven children died despite the involvement of child protective services. In 2022, that number rose to twenty-eight, meaning that four times more children died that year compared to 2007 despite DHHS interventions.
Of these twenty-eight, eleven children were determined to have died as a result of “accidents,” including “motor vehicle accidents, drowning, fire, etc.” Six died as a result of “unsafe sleep.” For three others, the cause of death was classified as “sudden unexpected infant death.” Two children died from unspecified causes. One child was murdered. Only five of these children were determined to have died of “natural causes.”
In 2021, four children who had been previously involved with DHHS died within weeks of each other, prompting renewed scrutiny of the Department. Since then, the parents of all four children have been charged with either murder or manslaughter in connection with the children’s deaths.
Amidst all of this controversy, Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) director Todd Landry resigned citing “personal reasons.” When DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew emailed state workers to alert them of Landry’s departure, she made no mention of the tragic failures that have occurred under his watch.
At the end of last year, Walk a Mile in Their Shoes (WAMITS) — a non-profit founded by former Democratic state senator Bill Diamond — released an extensive report detailing how DHHS has fallen short and provided a number of concrete solutions to the problems identified.
Titled Unsupported: Key Lessons for Improving Maine’s Child Welfare System by Supporting All Stakeholders, the report from WAMITS is broken down into several sections, one for each of the key constituencies involved in and affected by the DHHS’ recent failures: caseworkers, foster parents, children, and other stakeholders.
Each section outlines the “areas of concern” that were noted by stakeholders, explains the consequences that are associated with these problems, and concludes with a number of practical solutions aimed at solving the identified issues.
It remains to be seen what impact Johnson’s leadership and the upcoming Child Welfare audit will have in the months to come on the safety and well being of the children for whom DHHS is responsible.