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Group urges more child welfare reforms after lackluster legislative session

Several people attending a child welfare rally at the State House in Augusta hold posters showing the number of child deaths in Maine per year.
Kevin Miller
Maine Public
Several people attending a child welfare rally at the State House in Augusta hold posters showing the number of child deaths in Maine per year.

AUGUSTA — Several dozen people rallied at the State House on Tuesday to call attention to what they say is the state's continuing failure to adequately protect children.

The event took place roughly two weeks after lawmakers returned home to their districts without enacting any major changes to the state's child welfare system. As speakers addressed, more than a dozen attendees held aloft posters showing the number of child deaths each year since 2007 along with the approximate ages of the victims.

Melanie Blair, a longtime foster parent who is involved with the group Walk A Mile In Their Shoes, pointed out that from 2007 to 2018, 116 children died. But then she pointed out that 119 have died in the last five years alone, according to figures from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

"There were more deaths in five years than the previous twelve — let that sink in just for a minute," Blair said. "There is absolutely something seriously wrong here that is killing Maine's children at exponential rates."

The largest share of those deaths were caused by accidents and natural causes. But there have been at least 15 child homicides since 2017, according to DHHS.

"It is crucial that the iron curtain be pulled back in order to get the transparency that is desperately needed to reform policies that continue to fail our children," Blair said. 

Maine's child welfare system has been under intense scrutiny for more than six years due to a string of brutal, abuse related deaths of children whose families were within the system. Since that time, lawmakers and the Mills administration have invested tens of millions of dollars to hire more caseworkers, increase training and improve practices within the Office of Child and Family Services. The office's director resigned last fall amid growing criticism.

In early March, the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee released several dozen recommendations aimed at improving relations with foster families, addressing staff retention and recruitment, and other remedies. But lawmakers failed to act on most of the recommendations that were incorporated into bills before the Legislature ended the 2024 session on April 18, with the exception of a veto session.

The most controversial proposal — to create a stand-alone child welfare agency outside of DHHS — died on the House floor after passing with Senate with bipartisan support.

"They really have some good answers, I just don't think those answers were acted on much this session," former state Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham said of the Government Oversight Committee report.

Diamond said the late-timing of the committee's recommendations likely limited how much could be done in the final weeks of this year's session. He founded Walk a Mile in Their Shoes several years ago amid the growing outcry over child deaths. The group came out with its own report last December based on conversations with DHHS caseworkers, foster families and others within the child welfare system.

He and other group leaders met with DHHS officials earlier this year. Diamond described the meeting as polite but said his group was essentially asked to stop calling Maine's child welfare system "broken" instead of being asked about ways to work with the department.

"If the department would just realize that we are here to help — we are not here to continue to point fingers," Diamond said. "The reason we point fingers and shine a light on what is happening is because nothing is happening."

DHHS spokesperson Lindsay Hammes said an agency official was not available for an interview on Tuesday.

"The Department welcomes the perspectives of all those devoted to improving the health and safety of Maine children and families," Hammes said in a statement. "We have more work to do to strengthen the child welfare system and value the contributions of foster families, advocates, and other partners in pursuing meaningful and effective solutions."

Hammes pointed to multiple changes in recent years that she said has yielded significant progress. For instance, caseworker vacancies have declined 25% since January and the department expects those numbers to continue falling thanks to $3,000 "recruitment and retention" payments going out to staff in several installments. Gov. Janet Mills' supplemental budget also includes nearly $7 million for foster family programs, to further boost child welfare staff pay and add more positions, such as legal aides.

And just five minutes before Tuesday's rally, DHHS sent out a press release announcing that the department had joined the National Partnership for Child Safety, a multi-state collaborative that aims to curb child injuries and fatalities. As part of that effort, DHHS will contribute to a data warehouse on child fatality reporting.

Mark Moran, who chairs Maine's Child Death and Serious Injury Review Panel, applauded the move on Tuesday, noting that the panel has been advocating both formally and informally for several years for Maine to join the collaborative.

“Cases in which kids are seriously injured or die unexpectedly are most often incredibly complex, as is child welfare work in general," Moran said in a statement. "Enhancing our capacity to analyze data, review trends and themes, and choose interventions that are evidence-informed will only benefit the children we all seek to protect from serious harm."
But the announcement didn't impress state Sen. Jeff Timberlake, a Turner Republican who serves on the Government Oversight Committee.

"They don't need to join another group — they've joined enough groups," Timberlake said in an interview. "We don't need to do another study. We know what the problem is. The Government Oversight Committee has spent hours and hours and hours and hundreds of people from OPEGA doing the studies of what needs to happen. The recommendations have come out. Let's start implementing them."

Timberlake sponsored the failed bill to break apart DHHS, creating a separate child welfare agency. And he said he was frustrated that the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee wanted to send his bill and other recommendations from his committee to a blue ribbon commission studying how DHHS is organized.

"My concern is we are headed back to the same old thing: The Legislature goes home and it's like, 'Ok guys, we can relax now,'" Timberlake said. "And then, you know, we're back where we were."

As a former longtime lawmaker, Bill Diamond said he realizes that the Legislature's work on the recommendations is likely done for the year. But he said he hopes the department will implement the changes that it can in the meantime and that his group will continue to advocate for reforms between now and next year's legislative session.

"We can't stop, we don't have any other alternative," Diamond said.