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Lawmakers eying stand-alone child welfare agency in response to ongoing issues

A pedestrian walks by the Maine State House, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
A pedestrian walks by the Maine State House, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Augusta, Maine.

Maine lawmakers discussed creating a separate, child welfare agency, bolstering foster family programs and re-examining family reunification policies on Friday in response to ongoing concerns over child protection services.

The Legislature's Government Oversight Committee has been investigating aspects of Maine's child welfare programs ever since four children died of abuse in a single month in the summer of June 2021. All four families had some level of interaction with the Office of Child and Family Services within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services prior to the deaths.

As the latest phase of that review nears its completion, some lawmakers have revived the long-debate idea of creating a stand-alone child welfare agency outside of DHHS.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake, a Republican from Turner, was among five committee members Friday who endorsed the idea during a committee roundtable discussion on Friday.

"So you're going to create a commissioner that is going to just be in charge of the Office of Child and Family Services, and that's their job," Timberlake said. "The problem is right now, if you keep it the way it is and you keep the current commissioner in place, you don't change anything at the top and you don't change the structure. And I think it's so important, representative, that we change that structure."

DHHS officials signaled for the first time last fall that they would be open to such a change if it could be shown to improve services more than investing in other areas.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said there are "too many layers of management within DHHS."

"I don't think that we are able to make the change and have something that is nimble enough to . . . be responsive when there are so many layers of management," Keim said. "The frontline workers are not heard at the top level."

But on Friday, Republican committee members seemed more inclined than Democrats to support the proposed change, although some Democrats signaled they would open to studying the concept.

"I don't mind looking at it but I think you have to do it in a really deliberate way," said Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford. "If it's going to cost a whole lot more money on administration, that's money that I would rather see put in other areas. If I thought it could be done efficiently and not cost twice as much money to have duplicative administrative services, then that is something that I would consider."

There was bipartisan support on the committee for finding ways to hire additional aides to assist the caseworkers who do most of the on-the-ground work when it comes to investigating potential problems and working with families.

In recent months, numerous caseworkers have come forward to tell the committee and its watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, that they are extemely overworked and under-supported as they attempt to juggle sometimes three to four times as many cases as officials say is optimal.

Committee members also discussed the need for temporary, transitional housing for children who are separated from their families to avoid caseworkers having to stay with children in hotel rooms or hospital emergency departments. But lawmakers also expressed concerns about what they see as a lack of support for foster families and a potential over-emphasis within DHHS and federal agencies on reuniting children with their biological parents even when the home environment remains unhealthy or risky to the child.

Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, said he would like to see a full statutory review of policies, including the way the state balances the best interests of children with pressures to reunify families. And Hickman said foster families have to be part of those considerations.

"When you take in somebody else's children, you get the angel star for the rest of your life as far as I'm concerned," said Hickman, who was himself in the foster care system as an infant before being adopted. "And I was floored by the lack of support for foster parents that is pervasive in the current way that we operate."

The committee is expected to continue discussing potential policy proposals in the coming weeks. The Legislature is slated to adjourn in mid-April.