A legislative committee voted unanimously Wednesday to direct the Legislature’s watchdog agency to probe Maine’s child protective system, in light of several recent deaths of children.

And the state’s child welfare ombudsman criticized the Maine Office of Child and Family Services for failing to make improvements over the past several months in how it handles child protective cases.

Christine Alberi, the ombudsman, said the office, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, has over-relied on “quantitative” measures, such as how long children remain in state custody, and not given enough weight to “qualitative” issues, such as how well caseworkers evaluate a child’s safety in the home. Alberi said the shortcomings were noted in her 2020 fiscal year-end report, and no significant improvements have been made.

“The department has continued to struggle with practice issues and decision-making around two crucial points of child welfare involvement: when making the decision whether the child will be safe in the home during the initial investigation, and when making the decision whether the child will be safe in the home once reunified with parents,” Alberi said. Maine now has about 2,200 children in state custody, according to state statistics.

The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee is probing the state’s child welfare services, after the recent deaths of four children, including 3-year-old Maddox Williams of Stockton Springs in June. Maddox’s mother, Jessica Trefethen, has been charged with murder in the boy’s death. The agency has been under scrutiny since the deaths more than three years ago of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick. The parents or caretakers in those two unrelated cases were convicted of crimes related to their deaths and are now serving prison sentences.

The state also has seen three recent deaths. Police have charged Ronald Harding of Brewer with killing his 6-week-old son on June 1, and Hillary Gooding of Old Town faces a manslaughter charge in the death of her 3-year-old daughter five days later. And on June 17, a 4-year-old boy from the Franklin County town of Franklin died from what police believe was an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound. No one has been charged in connection with that case.

The state has contracted with Casey Family Programs, a national child welfare research organization, to work with state agencies to come up with improvements to operations.

But the Government Oversight Committee has separately assigned another agency to evaluate child welfare services in conjunction with the review being done by Casey Family Programs. The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability – the Legislature’s watchdog agency – will report to the committee on Aug. 11 with a proposal outlining the scope of what the agency will do.

After the deaths of Kennedy and Chick more than three years ago, OPEGA surveyed caseworkers and reviewed placements of children removed from their homes. The review of child placements is ongoing.

Oversight committee Chairman Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, had some sharp questions for Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services.

“What happened? What went wrong? How did these cases slip through the cracks?” Libby asked.

Landry said child welfare is a complex system, and he welcomed the additional review by OPEGA, further meetings with Alberi’s office and scrutiny by Casey Family Programs.

“This is a call to action, and action is being taken without delay,” Landry said. “It is our responsibility as a state and as a society to do all we can to help children grow up safe and ensure they have the love and attention they need.”

He said the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened mental health and substance use disorder problems in Maine and across the country, which has impacted families and put children at risk.

Landry said he expects to receive recommendations from Casey Family Programs within 90 days.

Landry noted that there have been some improvements, including a decline in caseworker turnover, which has dropped from 22.95 percent in 2018 to 15.65 percent in 2020. 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.

But Alberi said it’s not only about how many caseworkers are on the job, but what they are doing, and how they measure up to industry standards for best practices.

The ombudsman’s office reviewed 43 cases from Oct. 1, 2020, to April 30, 2021, and found that 17, or 40 percent, had substantial deficiencies.

“The department continues to fail to complete consistent casework practice during the moments in cases where the determination of child safety is most consequential,” Alberi said, giving examples of hypothetical cases and not referring to actual investigations.

“Was the interview with the out-of-home parent thorough? Were all of the police reports obtained after the department learned that the mother’s boyfriend had a history of domestic violence? Did anyone knock on the neighbor’s door to see if they knew anything?”

Landry said that improvements in how caseworkers handle cases is ongoing. He said it also takes up to two years for caseworkers to become fully proficient at their jobs.

State Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, told the committee that problems with OCFS go back at least 20 years, and the agency is unwilling to make meaningful reforms. A bill by Diamond that would have separated OCFS and other child-centered agencies from DHHS failed in the Legislature this year.

“I’ve watched OCFS move too slowly and then stall and even regress over the past 20 years,” Diamond said. “My frustrations center on knowing full well that under their current practices there will be more child deaths that could have been prevented.”

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