AUGUSTA – State health and human services officials outlined Friday how they are trying to address problems in Maine’s beleaguered child protection system in the wake of two high-profile child deaths, while also urging patience on longer-term reforms.

Kendall Chick, 4, of Wiscasset and Marissa Kennedy, 10, of Stockton Springs.

Their efforts include better sharing of background information on families where abused or neglected children might be placed, an easier licensing process for foster families and, soon, a new information system that will reduce the paperwork burden on caseworkers.

That’s in addition to the more than 100 vacant positions with the Office of Child and Family Services that have been filled since last October, in part because of $21 million in new spending that was authorized last year to increase wages for caseworkers.

Still, Todd Landry, who started his job as OCFS director two weeks ago, stressed that he made a commitment to his staff to hear their thoughts and concerns before making any major changes.

“You need buy-in,” he said. “And I’ve made that commitment with our staff. They have shared loud and clear that they are experiencing, for lack of a better word, policy whiplash, so it may take a little more time on the front end. But it’s my belief it’s going to pay huge dividends over the long-term sustainability of the reforms we’re trying to put in place.”

Landry and Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew appeared before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Friday to update them on reforms. Last year, during Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, the committee authorized an investigation of the child protection system following the death of 4-year-old Kendall Chick in Wiscasset in December 2017 and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs two months later.

The investigation happened in two stages. An initial report found that child protection workers failed to follow policies and procedures in assessing the placement of Chick but did not offer specifics. In Kennedy’s case, investigators learned there were widely scattered reports of potential abuse or neglect, but information that might have led to a reassessment of the child’s situation and prompted officials to intervene was not shared at critical moments.

A more thorough examination of the system resulted in a report released in February that revealed widespread frustration among caseworkers about their workload and other policies that made their jobs challenging and put children at risk. Those conclusions mirrored reporting last year by the Press Herald that was built on interviews with caseworkers who were overwhelmed by high caseloads and supervisory turnover and felt their voices were not being heard.

Before that second investigation ended, though, LePage and his DHHS commissioner, Ricker Hamilton, had begun implementing changes internally. Lambrew and Landry both told lawmakers Friday that they are determining whether some of those changes were appropriate.

Sen. Justin Chenette of Saco, the co-chair of the Government Oversight Committee, pressed Lambrew and Landry on Friday to offer more specifics about what is being done.

The officials responded by outlining steps they have taken to improve the sharing of information from background checks, the licensing of foster families and the record-keeping system for caseworkers, as well as the vacant positions that have been filled.

Chenette said he was pleased with what he heard from Lambrew and Landry and hopes they will come back by the end of the summer for another update.

“I think there is an interest in learning what are the concrete steps we can take to achieve measurable outcomes,” he said. “The Legislature is really wanting to make sure that we have some tangible next steps and that things are happening on a regular basis.”

The deaths of Chick and Kennedy each resulted in criminal cases. Late last month, Shawna Gatto was found guilty of murdering Chick, who died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen. Chick had been removed by the state from her mother’s care and placed with Gatto and Stephen Hood, who was the girl’s primary caretaker.

One of the major revelations during Gatto’s trial was that DHHS only checked in on the girl once in the more than two years she lived with Gatto and Hood.

In Kennedy’s case, Sharon and Julio Carrillo, the girl’s mother and stepfather, have each been charged with murder in her death, but have not stood trial. Attorneys for Sharon Carrillo are trying to separate the cases.

Although those deaths generated most of the attention, the state actually logged 22 child deaths since the beginning of 2017 that had been preceded by some sort of family contact with child protection. More than half were deaths attributed to unsafe sleeping environments.

Lambrew said her department has launched an education campaign, in concert with the newly restaffed public nursing program, to warn parents about co-sleeping. Those nurses also are being used to provide resources to at-risk families, especially those where substance use disorders are present.

“We are taking actions that we know need to happen quickly and implementing them while we’re also doing a balanced approach,” she said. “We know that top-down changes without input may not succeed.”

Landry, who previously oversaw child welfare for the state of Nebraska, said one of his biggest challenges is to rebuild trust, not just among his staff but also with lawmakers who oversee human services, and with the public.

“I think some of the staff feels more than a little beat up,” he said.

Chenette said he respects caseworkers and the work they do, but also underscored the gravity of their jobs.

“How you rebuild that trust is having zero child deaths,” he said after Friday’s hearing. “That’s what it comes down to.”

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