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Maine GOP says improving the state's child welfare system will be a top priority

Kevin Miller
Maine Public
Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, speaks on Tuesday, January 17, 2023, during a State House press conference highlight Senate Republicans’ priorities for addressing child welfare issues.

Republicans in the Maine Senate said Tuesday that improving the state's child welfare system will be a top priority in the coming months following another scathing report

Last month, the independent ombudsman that reviews child welfare cases within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services found “substantial issues” in more than half of the 85 cases that the office analyzed. The ombudsman’s report said those issues included children being allowed to stay too long in dangerous settings as well as caseworkers failing to investigate new reports of abuse or not considering previous problems in a family.

Overall, the ombudsman reported a "downward trend in child welfare practice" within DHHS. And Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said what's so shocking is that these issues aren't new.

"We have had report after report come out and show that Child Protective (Services) really has not made any recognizable improvements as can be measured by outcomes,” Keim said during a State House press conference. “So children in Maine are not being kept safe. Children, our children, are dying."

Keim and other Republicans previewed some of the child welfare initiatives that they'll push for this legislative session. One bill would remove the Office of Child and Family Services from within DHHS to create a stand-alone agency – a proposal that passed the Maine Senate last year but was rejected by the House. Another measure would make it clear that members of the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee can use their subpoena powers to review confidential case files. The committee is currently in a legal battle with DHHS over access to files of recent child deaths.

Numerous other bill titles talk of increasing transparence and/or accountability within DHHS, although the text of those bills is not yet available.

Lawmakers have worked with the administrations of Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage to substantially expand child welfare programs in response to numerous deaths among children who were on the radar of Child Protective Services. But lawmakers launched new investigations after four children died at their hands of their parents or caregivers in a matter of weeks in 2021.

In a statement, DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said that 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.” Farwell said the number of child welfare staffing positions has increased 22 percent during that time while the number of foster families and adoptions increased by 33 and 42 percent, respectively.

“In response to the tragic child fatalities last year, the department stepped up its focus on substance use disorders with parents and families and engaged national experts who in October 2021 completed an independent investigation of these child deaths,” Farwell said. “The department has implemented most of the recommendations, along with those of other groups, including developing a bill to give hospitals and medical providers explicit authority to provide information to law enforcement when a law enforcement agency is investigating a report of child abuse and/or neglect.”

The two-year budget proposal released by Mills contains roughly $15 million in additional money for foster care and adoptive care but no new money for caseworkers. Asked about that last week, Mills pointed out that DHHS was still working to fill approximately 60 caseworker positions that were already funded by the Legislature.

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, said he and other Republicans on the budget-writing are ready to consider more funding for some programs, if necessary. But Bennett said more far-reaching reforms are needed within DHHS.

"Throwing money at this without fundamental reforms in accountability and transparency in alignment so that we can have a system that works better, is not money well spent,” Bennett said. “We've already appropriated lots of money. They are having a hard time recruiting people for the available positions that are already funded. We need to solve that problem."

Farwell said that while the department will review any legislative proposals, she added that housing the Office of Child and Family Services within DHHS has improved efforts to prevent and respond to child abuse or neglect. That’s because it allows the office to work with other programs within DHHS to ensure families have access to food, health care, counseling, substance use treatment and other support services.

Sen. Trey Stewart of Presque Isle, who is the Republican leader in the Senate, said he hopes lawmakers will also take a look at problems with family reunification – both in terms of families that shouldn’t have been reunited but were, and families that should be reunited but were not because of bureaucracy or other reasons.

“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,” Stewart said. “Because that is what success looks like. Success is not more money in the budget or an expansion of government here or there. Success is when no more children are dying in the state of Maine that are within the system.”

During an interview last week on the Maine Calling program, Mills she wanted to take “whatever measures we can” to address the recent tragic cases and the issues highlighted in Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi’s report.

“I’m not sure it means creating a new bureaucracy or creating a new position,” Mills said. “But I want to get on the ground and find out what’s going on.”