The deaths of four children last summer prompted lawmakers to offer more oversight and transparency for child welfare services in Maine.
At least nine bills proposing changes to child welfare and protection have received approval from legislative leaders for consideration in the session that begins next month. The next “second session” is reserved for specific types of bills, including emergency bills, finance bills and governor’s bills.
Although wording is still being drafted for many bills, Senator Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said he has never been so optimistic about passing meaningful reform of the law. child protection during 20 years of advocacy.
“Instead of just adding social workers, which never fixes the problem, we need a culture change there,” said Diamond, who has sponsored three bills and has been a long-time advocate for it. strengthening of guarantees for children. “I’m really happy with the interest and awareness – it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. “
Diamond said he sensed community support for the reform during the fall, when he and other lawmakers traveled by foot and vehicle from Old Town to Wiscasset to host sessions. listening to sites where children have been killed in recent years. Now he is encouraged to see several bills aimed at strengthening child protection services by increasing surveillance and speeding up cases of child homicide.
“The public understood this,” he said. “There is a lot of interest now. It’s a beautiful tide to see coming towards us.
Spokesmen for Senate Speaker Troy Jackson and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau said Democratic leaders will monitor the bills as they move through the committee process.
“The health and safety of Maine’s children is not a political issue; Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature are united, ”Fecteau said in a written statement. “We need to build Maine’s capacity to protect children. There is absolutely no hesitation in doing whatever it takes to keep children safe and continue to advance policies that will support families and improve services that protect children from abuse and neglect.
It is not clear whether the governor will support giving lawmakers greater oversight over the state agency that oversees protective services.
Lindsay Crete, the governor’s press secretary, highlighted the steps Mills has taken to address staffing issues, including increasing salaries, improving training and funding more than 70 new positions to improve the number of cases, reduce staff turnover. She said the state had increased the number of foster homes by 30 percent.
But Crete said the pandemic delayed further systemic reforms and increased pressure on families themselves, which contributed to child deaths last summer.
Crete said Mills is developing its own policies and looks forward to working with lawmakers in the next session.
The legislation comes after four children died less than a month apart last summer. Three of these deaths resulted in charges of murder or manslaughter. In at least one of those cases, the death of 3-year-old Maddox Williams in Stockton Springs, the family had previously had contact with child welfare services, court documents have revealed.
The incidents renewed scrutiny of Maine’s child welfare system, which has been the subject of similar investigations after the high-profile deaths of Kendall Chick, 4, in late 2017 and Marissa Kennedy, 10. , in 2018.
The state has enlisted Casey Family Programs to help investigate three of the four deaths in 2021. But lawmakers were disappointed with the results of a report released in October because it did not go into the details of each. case.
The Legislative Assembly’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability is also investigating. Its findings are expected to be presented to lawmakers in phases, starting next month.
Christine Alberi, the state ombudsman for child protection, has raised concerns about “deep-rooted issues” in recent years, mainly when child protection social workers decide. whether or not to remove a child, or during family reunification, when a child who has been taken into state detention is handed over to the guards. And two members of the program’s board resigned because they didn’t think the DHHS was listening to Alberi.
Alberi did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Several bills would increase independence and devote more resources to the Child Welfare Ombudsman program, an impartial office supposed to help resolve people’s concerns and complaints about the Child Welfare Department. State Childhood, which has only two staff members.
A bill sponsored by Senator Chip Curry, D-Belfast, would make the ombudsperson more independent and allow the office to share confidential information with lawmakers behind closed doors, so they can provide more effective oversight.
Curry said the bill was necessary because the Department of Health and Human Services has regularly told lawmakers they are addressing the issues and hiring more staff, but lawmakers have no way of confirming that it’s the case. He said empowering the ombudsperson, whose role is to advocate for children and educate lawmakers, could be a way to strengthen oversight.
“By law, the department can’t share a lot of information, so our ability to provide oversight is limited,” Curry said. “What is clear to me now is that we also need a stronger ombudsperson office. We need to staff them and make sure they have the independence to go where they need to go, find the information they need, and engage in those two missions.
Specifically, LD 1755, would make the post of ombudsperson an appointment to the post of governor, subject to legislative confirmation, with a term of 5 years and grant the ombudsperson the power to provide investigative, oversight and advocacy services to statewide to ensure children’s rights and safety. and their families. Currently, ombudsman services are provided under contract with the state.
The bill would also require the state to consult with the program on policies or practice changes related to child welfare and allow the ombudsman to participate in the training, study and development of policies.
It would also add two full-time deputy ombudsmen and a full-time administrative assistant.
Diamond sponsored a different bill to strengthen the staff of the Ombudsman’s office and co-sponsored Curry’s Bill.
Diamond also sponsored a bill, LD 1843, that would strengthen oversight by empowering the government’s Oversight Committee to oversee the Office of Child and Family Services. That’s important, he said, because it’s the only legislative committee that meets year-round, and it has the power to issue subpoenas. The oversight committee would then report back to lawmakers, so they can make informed decisions.
“It’s a really unique committee and it’s something we could use throughout the whole process of trying to reform and make meaningful long-term improvements to this office,” Diamond said, predicting the DHHS resistance. “I’ve learned over the past 20 years doing this that this is really a loophole in our system. We need constant monitoring. It doesn’t mean constant harassment. That’s not to say it’s a negative thing.
Diamond said his most important reform bill would require the justice system to prioritize child homicide cases. Often, he said, lawsuits are the only way lawmakers can get details of how the system has failed to protect children. And, he said, the 16 to 24 months it takes to bring a case to court is too long to wait to receive this information.
“The reason things don’t change is because we don’t know what’s going on until there is a tragedy,” he said.
Note: This article was updated on Monday, December 27 to include a response from the governor’s office that was wrongly omitted.
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