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– Lawmakers approve a batch of child welfare reforms

State lawmakers on Monday introduced several bills that supporters hope will improve Maine’s child welfare programs in the wake of recent child deaths.

Bills approved Monday would increase investments in support programs for struggling families, launch a pilot program to provide legal representation to parents facing child safety investigations and strengthen legislative oversight of child safety services. child protection.

The Health and Human Services Committee has tabled a related bill to limit the number of hours social workers work – an issue Governor Janet Mills has sought to address by adding staff to cover shifts. night and weekend. The committee recently voted in favor of a bill increase the independence of the Child Protection Ombudsman and add staff.

Only one of the four bills recommended by the committee on Monday received a unanimous vote. This bill, LD 1853, sponsored by Democratic committee co-chairman Senator Ned Claxton of Auburn, would require citizen members of two of the committees overseeing the Office of Family and Children’s Services – the Maine Child Welfare Advisory Panel and the Child Death and Serious Injury Committee – report to the Legislative Committee on a quarterly basis. Claxton’s bill would also order the Department of Health and Human Services to report on its progress in implementing the reforms on a quarterly basis.

“Holding them accountable is the overall goal,” Claxton said.

Lawmakers renewed the review of protective services after four children died less than a month apart last summer. An outside group, Casey Family Services, produced a report recommending improvements to the program. And the Legislature’s nonpartisan oversight agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Accountability Agency, is conducting its own investigation.

Reform efforts also come after the Department of Health and Human Services reported that 25 children died last year — the most since the department began tracking deaths in 2007. That doesn’t include at least four deaths that were classified as homicides and weren’t added to the total because criminal cases have not been resolved .

Claxton said his surveillance bill was inspired by a bill introduced by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, to increase surveillance by requiring the Office of Family and Children’s Services report to the Government Oversight Committee, which is fully staffed year-round and has a subpoena. powers. The committee voted against Diamond’s bill, saying the HHS committee would continue to work with the oversight committee on child safety issues.

Other bills were approved by the Democratic majority on the committee and included increasing state spending to support families.

A bill, LD 393sponsored by Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, House Co-Chair, called for at least $2.6 million in investments to address the mental health and addictions issues that underlie many reports of abuse or negligence.

Meyer said she was proud that the committee previously voted in favor of Mills’ proposal to strengthen the child protection ombudsman program, which responds to complaints from families involved with DHHS. But more needs to be done, she says.

“We have an opportunity here to support legislation that provides investments in the broader child protection system incorporating improvements in prevention and response services,” she said. “I think he invests in a strong child welfare system that our Maine children deserve and expects us to work together to produce.”

Specific investments called for annual funding of $2 million for behavioral health services for families engaged in rehabilitation and reunification; $420,000 per year to increase support for family members caring for children; and $200,000 a year to a Child Protective Services Provident Account, which could be used to help families meet critical needs.

The bill also calls for improved access to services for parents who work with the ministry to regain custody of their children; the creation of a Child Protection Coordinator within DHHS to coordinate child abuse and neglect prevention activities across state agencies; and using Maine’s opioid settlement funds to expand drug treatment to rural areas and peer recovery centers statewide.

Republicans unanimously opposed the bills, even though they agreed with the priorities, Rep. Kathy Javner, R-Chester, said, noting that many of these issues were already addressed, or at least proposed in the supplementary budget.

“We care a lot about what happens at the Office of Family and Children’s Services. We just think there are a lot of moving parts that are already in play,” she said. “I agree with the policy elements and I think we will see them come to fruition.”

The committee also voted along party lines in favor of a pilot project that would provide legal services to parents who are under investigation by child protective services. The law project, LD 1824would create a two-year program through the end of 2024 for families living in District 4, which includes Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties.

Currently, parents are only represented by counsel when the Department files an application for a child protection order. But attorneys who work with families have argued that legal representation is needed as soon as the department opens an investigation, because the department often asks parents to agree to a course of action that can then be used against them in court. courts.

Justin Andrus, acting director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, estimated the pilot project would cost about $1.5 million in attorney fees but could result in fewer family separations and fewer cases. court because the lawyers would be able to explain the process. to their clients and help them understand what they need to do to reunite their children.

However, Todd Landry, director of the Office of Family and Children’s Services, noted that only 7% of all investigations result in legal action and only 3% result in the removal of a child from a foyer. “I think we’re doing a really good job of that,” he said.

But Debra Dunlap, co-chair of the Maine Child Welfare Advisory Panel, said a recent survey showed only 15.5%, or about five of 33 parents involved with child protective services, said they understood the process. and what they had to do to keep their children. She said parents did not trust social workers in many cases because they were the ones threatening to take their child out of the home.

“Ultimately, the panel thinks this is one of the important tools to really help parents understand what they need to change in order to prevent long-term (withdrawal) trauma,” Dunlap said.

All bills advanced by the committee will be voted on by the full House and Senate in the coming weeks.

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