The new leader of Maine’s child welfare system said on Monday that he will propose boosting a near-dormant state program that would expand counseling services for families with at-risk children. The initiative, which is still in its early stages, would include dozens of additional therapists.

Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, said Maine has let a program that has research-proven benefits – called “functional family therapy” – dwindle over the past several years to less than five counselors covering the entire state.

“If you live north of Bangor, we have no functional family therapy teams available,” said Landry, who was giving an update to the Government Oversight Committee on Monday. Landry took the reins at the OCFS in May, as the state struggled to bolsters its child protective system after the deaths of two young children. “These are evidence-based programs.”

Maine state officials are working on a number of reforms to its child welfare system after the high-profile abuse deaths of two children – 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in February, 2018 and 4-year-old Kendall Chick in December, 2017. Shawna Gatto, Kendall Chick’s caregiver, was found guilty after a trial and sentenced to 50 years in prison this summer, while Marissa Kennedy’s stepfather, Julio Carrillo, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 55 years in prison for murder in the Marissa Kennedy case. Sharon Carrillo, Marissa’s mother, is facing murder charges, and her case is still pending.

The “functional family therapy” program brings counselors into the home to work with families to help them with parenting, life skills, and work on solving family problems and disputes. The idea is to discuss issues occurring within the family and prevent those problems from becoming acute. If families can address problems before they turn worse, that can prevent children from being taken from the home and improve family stability, Landry said.

“It is a prevention and intervention tool,” Landry said.

Landry said there is not a specific proposal yet – and so he didn’t have a cost or staffing estimate – but he expects it would include dozens of additional staff. The detailed proposal will be unveiled later this year.

The Functional Family Therapy nonprofit, based in Washington state, said on its website that 45 states use the model.

Doug Kopp, CEO of Functional Family Therapy, said that Maine’s programs used to be fairly robust, but have been “whittled away over time.” Kopp said about 15 states have comprehensive statewide programs devoted to the therapy model, and some of the states with more robust programs include Maryland, South Dakota, Washington state and Georgia.

Kopp said the model has been studied extensively since the 1970s, and has been in increasingly greater use since the 2000s, working with families that traditionally have not been trusting of the child welfare system.

“We don’t work with individuals. We work with entire families and get them motivated to change, and help them sustain these changes,” he said.

A new federal law, 2018’s Family First Prevention Services Act, listed functional family therapy as one of its preferred prevention programs, and Kopp said he believes there will be federal funds available for states. Because the law is so new, and the federal government is still working on implementation, it’s difficult to say how much funding will be freed up, he said.

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability – which reports to the Government Oversight Committee – has been delving into how Maine’s child welfare system can improve since the deaths of the two children. A February 2019, 46-page OPEGA report detailed how caseworkers had too many demands on their time, and that the job couldn’t be completed in a 40-hour workweek, among many other issues. Another report about how Child Protective Services removes children from the home is pending.

Landry also said that the Office of Child and Family Services has filled 22 of 33 caseworker positions approved by the Legislature during the last session, in response to increased demand and complaints from caseworkers that they were overwhelmed. But as the number of caseworkers has increased, so has number of children in some form of state custody. There were 2,196 children in state custody on Sept. 1, a 23 percent increase from the 1,791 in state custody at the end of 2018. Landry said much of that increase can be attributed to greater awareness of abuse, partly due to continued media coverage of the two deaths.

There were about 263 Office of Child and Family Services caseworkers on staff in 2018, according to OPEGA.

In the coming weeks, Maine will also hire additional support staff and supervisors for the caseworkers, boosting the workforce by 62 positions.

Also on Monday, lawmakers expressed frustration that it will take 18 months to two years for the state to implement a new $40 million computerized system that is designed to make the jobs of caseworkers and other OCFS staff more efficient.

“That’s a long time for children to wait for a safer environment,” said Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, and co-chair of the committee.

Landry said it’s a complex program that has to be customized for Maine.

“This isn’t like pulling the latest version of Microsoft Word off the shelf at Best Buy,” he said.

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