The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted Wednesday to set an aggressive timeline for its investigative arm to report back on a review of the state’s child protective system, which has come under fire once again following recent high-profile deaths.

Lawmakers directed the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to begin a three-part investigation into the Office of Child and Family Services, and to set aside all other work if need be.

The first part, due Jan. 15, would examine broadly whether current oversight of the family services office is adequate and effective. The two other parts, which would review how the state is protecting child safety during initial investigation and assessment, and how it’s protecting child safety during reunification and permanency – when a child is placed back with a parent or foster family for good after being removed – would be due later in the year.

Sen. Nate Libby, the committee co-chair, said it’s vital for OPEGA to expedite its investigation so lawmakers can consider drafting legislation during the next session.

“This project could take three years if that’s what we want. I don’t believe that timeline works for us,” said Libby, a Democrat from Lewiston.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, agreed and said he views an investigation of the family services office as “the most important thing happening in the state right now.”

“I don’t care if OPEGA puts everything else on hold,” said Timberlake, also the Senate’s Republican leader.

The OPEGA review comes on the heels of another review underway by Casey Family Programs, a national child welfare research organization. State officials announced last month that the family services office would contract with Casey on a 90-day review that will be completed in September or October.

The decision to request assistance from Casey followed four child deaths in June, three of which resulted in criminal charges against parents. In at least one of those cases, the death of 3-year-old Maddox Williams in Stockton Springs, the family had prior contact with child protective services, court documents revealed.

Family services Director Todd Landry said in an interview Wednesday the agency welcomes the review by OPEGA and will provide its staff with anything it needs to help improve the safety of Maine’s children.

“We recognize the passion and commitment many people have (around this topic),” Landry said. “We share that and we share with them the absolute belief that there are improvements we have to continue to make as a child welfare agency.”

Last month, Landry said the recent deaths served as a call to action, but he also has stressed that many reforms have been ongoing since the deaths of two other children, Kendall Chick and Marisa Kennedy, in late 2017 and early 2018. Both were killed by parents or caretakers after caseworkers had been alerted to concerns about their safety.

OPEGA also reviewed the circumstances of those deaths and then followed up with a comprehensive survey of child protective caseworkers, but the latest review is likely to be more substantive.

Director Lucia Nixon told lawmakers Wednesday that OPEGA is “fully aware other work is going on.”

“We don’t want to be duplicative,” she said, adding that the family services office has invited OPEGA to be part of the review conducted by Casey Family Programs.

The scope of OPEGA’s review backs up concerns raised in a recent report by the state’s Child Welfare Ombudsman, Christine Alberi, particularly around safety during initial family assessments and again when a child is returned to the family. Alberi raised similar concerns in her 2019 report.

Last month, two longtime members of the board of directors for the ombudsman’s office – James “Allie” McCormack and Ally Keppel – resigned in protest because they felt state officials were not heeding the ombudsman’s warnings.

“As time went by, reports from the ombudsman to the board took on an eerie familiarity, and the ombudsman’s 2019 and 2020 reports to the Maine Legislature continued to expose the same systemic safety issues that led to these needless child deaths,” the two wrote at the time. “Another legislative session has gone by without any significant changes, and the newspaper articles reporting multiple child deaths involving some degree of DHHS involvement have arrived as feared.”

In an interview, Keppel said she grew frustrated with DHHS’ “continued resistance to the information that is presented to them.”

Landry and his staff have disagreed with some of the child welfare ombudsman’s conclusions and have defended improvements that have been made. For instance, the state has hired and trained dozens of new caseworkers over the last few years and staff turnover is at its lowest point in five years.

Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, acknowledged that the family services office is in the process of “rebuilding after a period of dismantling,” referring to deep cuts to social services under former Gov. Paul LePage.

“It’s also true and deeply saddening that current efforts are occurring as a result of another crisis,” she said. “Clearly, there is important work still to be done.”

Some who spoke at Wednesday’s Government Oversight Committee meeting suggested lawmakers push even further in their review.

Michael Petit, Maine’s health commissioner for much of the 1980s who later founded a nonprofit called Every Child Matters, said the family services office should conduct a “deep dive” of all children in state care, particularly those who are returned to their parents after being removed.

“I do think there is an urgency you could satisfy by going into some of these homes and revisiting what the conditions were, because they change, and the work has changed,” he said.

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