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State Oversight Committee Launches Probe Into Child Welfare System Following Four Child Deaths In June

Maine Legislature
Robert F. Bukaty
The Maine State House is seen Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, in Augusta, Maine. Lawmakers returned to deal with Maine's struggling child welfare system and the state's tax code.

Maine's Government Oversight Committee today ordered a review of the state's child welfare system in the wake of the recent deaths of four young children. It's the second time in just a few years that lawmakers have called for a probe of the agency. The Office of Child and Family Services and outside observers painted different pictures to the committee of the progress the state has made in ensuring child safety.

The deaths all occurred in June. A six-month-old and two three-year-olds died from alleged abuse by their parents. Another child died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound. Dr. Todd Landry, the director of Maine's Office of Child and Family Services, told the state's Government Oversight Committee on Wednesday that the deaths are a call to action, and that "action is being taken without delay."

Landry told lawmakers that his office is conducting its own independent review. He also emphasized the state's previously announced partnership with national experts at Casey Family Programs, who are conducting an outside review.

"We have targeted approximately 90 days for this work to be completed. And while this timeframe is an ambitious one, we believe it's both attainable and unnecessary," Landry said.

These reviews come three years after the legislature's investigative arm launched its own review following the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy. Republican Senator Lisa Keim, who serves on the Government Oversight Committee, expressed concern that Landry's agency isn't being proactive enough.

"What do you think is going to be unusually different or unusually helpful about having yet another review of our system as opposed to just making the changes that have already been recommended?" Keim said.

According to Landry, his agency has made improvements in recent years. Caseworker turnover has reduced from 23% to 15%. The agency has implemented a new tool that helps staff make decisions in cases. And Landry says the state's success in finding a permanent home for children is the highest it's been in a year, at 87%.

But Maine's Child Welfare Ombudsman, Christine Alberi, says the state has failed to improve at two critical points in child welfare cases. First, when deciding whether a child is safe in their home during the initial investigation. Second, when deciding whether the child will be safe once reunified with their parents. These problems were identified in the Ombudsman's annual report from December.

"Unfortunately, the practice issues detailed in the 2020 report have not improved that we've seen so far," Alberi says.

And Alberi says the Ombudsman's office disagrees with how the state measures its progress toward improvement.

"It is a mistake - and this is what I worry about- that we overly rely on quantitative assessments of child welfare data in place of qualitative assessments," Alberi says.

In other words, Alberi says, the state views success according to numerical measures, such as how soon a caseworker makes contact with a child after receiving a report, and how quickly the investigation is completed. While these measures are important, Alberi says, they don't capture the quality of investigations, by asking, for example, whether interviews were thorough? Or, did anyone knock on neighbors' doors to see if they know anything?

"Improvements in child welfare need to be laser-focused on training for staff at crucial decision making points," Alberi says. "Staff must also have enough time to perform their work."

Alberi's concerns about quality were underscored by Democratic Senator Chip Curry, who called for the committee to investigate the state's child welfare program. Curry represents Midcoast communities where three high profile child deaths have occurred. He told the committee that he's heard from child protective staff that they feel pressured to rush investigations to avoid poor performance evaluations.

"Now I don't know if these experiences are rare or pervasive throughout the agency. But if these dynamics are preventing us from effectively protecting children, we need to find out," Curry said.

Curry expressed frustration that the state has repeatedly failed to make systemic improvements to its child welfare program, and that frustration was echoed by Democratic Senator Bill Diamond. He says he's witnessed the agency struggle for the past 20 years, through four administrations, both Democrat and Republican.

"My goal is for the Department, and for the office, to simply admit that the system is broken," Curry said.

And Diamond alleged that the Office of Child and Family Services is not the partner it should be with entities that could help it improve, such as the Child Welfare Ombudsman. When the child deaths in June became public, Diamond says he asked the Ombudsman to find out whether the state was involved with the families prior to the deaths.

"She got back to me and said, upon initial request, the OCFS refused to give the information to her. She reminded the director that the law was clear. One more case of a questionable obstruction, and the question is, why?" Diamond says.

It's among the many questions that OPEGA - the legislature's investigative arm - will attempt to answer after the Government Oversight Committee voted to launch yet another review of the state's child welfare system.