A Belfast lawmaker is demanding answers from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services on its child protective system in light of recent deaths of children.

The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday to hear from top Department of Health and Human Services officials about the system.

“The death of a child is always tragic especially when it could have been prevented, like that of Maddox Williams of Stockton Springs,” said state Sen. Chip Curry, D-Belfast, in a statement Friday. Williams, 3, died of “blunt force trauma” on June 20, according to the state Medical Examiner’s Office, and his mother, Jessica Williams, 35, of Stockton Springs, is charged with murder in his death.

Stockton Springs is part of Senate District 11, which Curry represents. In a letter to the committee, Curry asked for a probe of the DHHS.

“The death of Maddox Williams is both heartbreaking and appalling,” he wrote. “Tragically, several children in Maine died just last month. The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child and Family Services and Child Protective Services has failed these children. Our Legislature needs to determine how to better support these families and save lives.”

Maddox Williams was the fourth Maine child to die in less than a month because of suspected abuse or by accident.

Jeanne Lambrew, Maine’s health and human services commissioner, said in an interview Friday that even though DHHS has made improvements to the system over the past two years, the pandemic has caused many societal problems. For instance, mental health problems have worsened, as has substance use disorder, in a year when society was upended and many families’ social connections frayed.

“We are on pace to see more drug overdose deaths this year,” Lambrew said. “Our hotlines have seen an increase in calls from people with mental health challenges. The reality is child welfare is one part of the system, but we have to look at the whole system.”

The number of children in state custody increased from 2,236 when the pandemic began in March 2020 to a peak of 2,375 in November, before declining to 2,197 as of June 1, the latest data available.

Lambrew said the number of children in state custody – including in the foster care system – increased in part because the courts were closed or open only for remote hearings for much of 2020, creating a backlog of cases involving decisions about family reunification or adoption.

After complaints in 2017 and 2018 of caseworkers being overwhelmed, DHHS has bolstered staffing in child protective services under the Mills administration. The agency has added 69 positions, including caseworkers, supervisors and support staff, bringing the total workforce to 654 positions.

“Caseworker turnover has decreased from 22.95 percent in 2018 to 17.73 percent in 2019 to 15.65 percent in 2020,” said Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in an email response to questions. Long said average annual turnover is 14-22 percent for state child protective caseworkers, according to a recent analysis.

State Sen. Bill Diamond, a Windham Democrat, in April sponsored legislation to create a separate state department for child welfare, removing the Office of Children and Family Services from the oversight of the Department of Health and Human Services while setting up a new Cabinet level department, with a commissioner confirmed by the Legislature.

In addition to child welfare, Diamond’s bill proposed having the new department oversee Head Start and child care services, maternal and child health, enforcement of child support and residential care for children with disabilities. While the state Senate approved the measure, the House of Representatives rejected it and the legislation died between the chambers.

Christine Alberi, executive director of the office of Maine’s Child Welfare Services Ombudsman, also will appear before the oversight committee next week. She said there are no easy answers for this complex system.

“Just like in every aspect of life, the pandemic has made many things more difficult for child welfare staff, although there have been some positives as well,” Alberi said in an email. “Hopefully Zoom is here to stay as it makes some kinds of meetings and court appearances much easier, especially when coordinating large groups of people. On the other hand, most staff have been working out of the office, juggling their jobs with the needs of their own families, and experienced their own pandemic related stress.”

The death of 3-year-old Maddox Williams comes less than 3 1/2 years after the death of Marissa Kennedy, 10, also of Stockton Springs. Marissa Kennedy’s parents, Sharon Kennedy and Julio Carrillo, were convicted of murder and are serving lengthy prison sentences.

Marissa Kennedy’s death came just three months after another child, 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset, died of child abuse. Shawna Gatto, who helped Chick’s paternal grandfather care for the girl while the child’s mother struggled with addiction, was convicted of murder in Kendall Chick’s death.

Appearing before the committee at a 10 a.m. meeting Wednesday, in addition to Alberi, will be Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services in DHHS, and Lisa Marchese, deputy attorney general.

Curry, the Belfast legislator, wrote in Friday’s letter that years of promises of reforms have not materialized.

“If the knowledge and information on how to reform our department and our systems exists, what is keeping us from succeeding and where do we need make further changes?” he asked.


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