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Maine Child Welfare Watchdog Cites Ongoing Problems With State Agency As Lawmakers Intensify Probe

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services offices on State Street in Augusta, shown in this December 2017 file photo.

Maine's Child Welfare Ombudsman says the state agency overseeing the custody of children continues to have problems investigating whether kids are safe with their caretakers.

Ombudsman Christine Alberi told the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee on Wednesday that her office found substantial problems with 40% of the 43 cases it reviewed between October and April.

Alberi also said that the Office of Child and Family Services appears too focused on the quantitative review of its cases and not enough on whether its investigations are thorough.

"The department continues to fail to complete consistent casework practice during the moments in cases where the determination of child safety is the most consequential," Alberi said.

The state's child welfare office has been under review by the Legislature's investigative arm since the deaths of two children in 2018.

The Government Oversight Committee is expected to intensify that probe following the deaths of five children in June.

During Wednesday's hearing, Democratic Sen. Nate Libby asked the state's top child welfare official Dr. Todd Landry why he provided a rosy assessment of the handling of cases in April only to be followed by the recent deaths of five children, some allegedly at the hands of caretakers overseen by the agency.

"What happened? What went wrong? How did these cases slip through the cracks?" Libby asked.

Landry said data the agency uses had shown improvement, but problems in individual cases are being investigated with the assistance of Casey Family Programs, a national organization specializing in child welfare.

Casey is expected to complete its review in October, but that could be complicated by delays in criminal cases, according to the state office of attorney general.