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Maine Health Officials Take Steps Toward More Transparency Around Child Deaths

Jeanne Lambrew
Robert F. Bukaty
Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew takes a question at a news conference in the State House, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, in Augusta, Maine. Lambrew is part of Gov. Mills' opioid task force.

State officials say that they’re working to improve the transparency of Maine’s child welfare system amid new scrutiny over the recent alleged killings of several kids by their parents.

On Wednesday, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services released a limited set of data on 143 child deaths going back to 2007, including the age of the children, whether their families had previous involvement with the protective system and whether each of the deaths was considered homicide, an accident or something else.

In an accompanying blog post, the agency said that it is “committed to unprecedented transparency around these events” and that the newly released “information allows for greater public understanding and awareness of these deaths, while protecting privacy as required under state and federal law.”

The department also said that it is now going to provide notification about child deaths to the state’s Child Welfare Ombudsman, an independent program that provides oversight of DHHS’ child welfare work.

That DHHS announcement comes after two members publicly resigned from the ombudsman’s board in July, in part out of frustration that it didn’t routinely get that notification — although the department is not legally required to provide it. Instead, the ombudsman found out about some of the deaths from news reports.

Christine Alberi, who heads the Child Welfare Ombudsman program, applauded DHHS’ decision to provide more historical data on child deaths this week.

“I think the release of the information on child deaths, especially going back so far, is a huge step in the right direction towards transparency,” she said in an email. “It is important for everyone in Maine to understand the true extent of the problem. Child death is difficult to think about. Without seeing what can happen, it is difficult to make change both in and outside of DHHS.”

Alberi added that it can still be hard to draw conclusions because many other details have been removed from the published data, which DHHS says is meant to follow privacy laws.

Maine’s child protective services are getting a new round of scrutiny after three separate kids allegedly died from abuse in June and a fourth died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot. Just this past weekend, a Milo man was also accused of murder in the death of his 1-month-old son.

The administration of Gov. Janet Mills has commissioned an outside review by the Casey Family Programs, and the state’s legislative oversight committee launched its own probe in July.

All the new attention comes after the child welfare system went through a similar period of scrutiny when two Maine girls were killed by their parents or caretakers in 2018.