AUGUSTA — Thirty Maine children have died from homicides, another 35 died while “co-sleeping” with adults and 26 more were killed in other accidents, according to a new state report that provides a sweeping view of 143 child deaths in Maine since 2007.

The figures were highlighted in a report released Tuesday by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services that also provides details about the state child welfare program’s involvement, if any, with each of the 143 deaths. DHHS officials also said they are getting the state’s child welfare ombudsman involved in analyzing specific cases earlier on in the process, following another spate of child deaths.

In some of the 143 cases covered by the new report, Maine’s Child Protective Services division had no contact with families before a child died. Other cases show more than a dozen reports, assessments and interventions – sometimes stretching back years – before the death.

DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said the information is aimed at increasing public transparency and comes at a time when Maine’s child welfare programs are again the focus of several internal and external reviews. Earlier this week, a Milo man became the fourth parent in Maine to be charged this year with murder or manslaughter in the death of a child.

“We are committed to change and that includes increased accountability,” Lambrew told lawmakers Wednesday.

Lawmakers voted earlier this summer to direct the Legislature’s independent watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability, to investigate the DHHS Office of Child and Family Services following four earlier child deaths. The department is also reviewing the issue and hired a national child-welfare organization, Casey Family Programs, to assist in the investigation.

The information released by DHHS on Wednesday focuses on 143 child deaths since 2007 that met the following criteria: they were deemed homicides, involved either abuse or neglect, or were families with which the Office of Child and Family Services had prior dealings even if the death was ultimately determined to be accidental, of natural causes or a suicide.

The 143 deaths detailed in the DHHS report include:

• 30 homicides, as determined by the state’s medical examiner;

• 18 attributed to “sudden unexplained infant death”;

• 26 determined to be accidental;

• 35 resulting from co-sleeping, which typically occurs when a sleeping adult inadvertently smothers an infant;

• 34 resulting from natural causes, suicide or where the cause was undetermined.

Wednesday’s report was an update to data released in 2019 by DHHS in response to a records request from the Portland Press Herald. At that time, the department had documented 117 deaths – including 18 homicides – dating back to 2007. Neither of the reports named the children or families involved, but instead provided the age, gender, cause of death and any DHHS involvement prior to the death.

“These steps build on (Office of Child and Family Services’) work to improve transparency to date, including launching and updating monthly a public child welfare dashboard which shows metrics including the number of children in state custody, success in permanency, and safety while in foster care, among other metrics,” DHHS stated in a blog post about the data Wednesday. “Our hope is that these recent steps will assist the public, policy makers, and others in better understanding trends, and participating in our shared responsibility to keep Maine children healthy and safe.”

But the report also highlights how tragedies – whether homicides, suicides or accidents – sometimes still occur even after years of DHHS involvement with some parents or families.

In June 2020, for instance, a 4-month-old girl’s death was determined to be accidental. But DHHS also indicated that the agency had “substantiated neglect” in the case, and the data shows that agency staffers had been in contact with parents or family members for more than three years. The report shows referrals were made for substance use disorder, mental health treatment, housing and “interpersonal violence-related services.”

Another listing shows that DHHS was providing home visiting services at the time that an 8-day-old girl died in May 2015 of undetermined causes. Previous DHHS involvement with the household dating back more than a decade had substantiated neglect, emotional abuse and substance use disorder.

Speaking to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday, Todd Landry, with the Office of Child and Family Services, pointed out that Maine has lower child fatality rates overall, as well as lower abuse- and neglect-related fatalities, than the national average.

But Landry also acknowledged that these are often complex challenges with no clear-cut answers about whether parents should permanently lose custody of children. When the agency goes to court to seek to revoke a parent’s custody, there is a certain amount of “trauma” that is inflicted on the family and the child, he said.

The preferred outcome is always that a child can safely stay at home, Landry said. DHHS staff must answer the complicated question of whether that would be possible with appropriate services and supports, he said.

“But the key part of that is to be able to safely stay at home,” Landry said. “But if that can’t happen, then we need to take the action of going to a judge and asking for a preliminary protection order and take the child into custody. But it is a balance … These are not easy decisions and I can guarantee you these are not decisions that our staff take lightly.”

It has only been a handful of years since DHHS was under a similar spotlight following the high-profile deaths of two young girls – 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs – at the hands of their parents or caregivers. In both cases, the girls died after prolonged, severe abuse even though DHHS caseworkers had been repeatedly involved with both families.

Subsequent investigations, including a lengthy probe by the watchdog agency OPEGA, found multiple failures on the part of DHHS, police and others. The department made significant changes in the years after those high-profile deaths, including expanding training and hiring about 60 additional staff in the child welfare programs.

In annual reports to the Legislature in 2020 and 2021, Maine’s child welfare ombudsman found DHHS had made progress, but she also highlighted serious concerns about DHHS’ handling of dozens of cases she reviewed.

The upcoming OPEGA report will focus not on the specifics of the recent deaths but, instead, on how the state is protecting child safety during initial investigation and assessment, and how it’s protecting child safety during family reunification and permanent placement with a foster family. OPEGA will also review the effectiveness of the various layers of oversight of Maine’s child welfare programs, with that first report due to lawmakers early next year.

Lambrew, the DHHS commissioner, as well as Landry said they welcomed OPEGA’s review and were working closely with the agency as well as Casey Family Programs on the external investigation. That outside agency’s first report is expected to be complete by next month.

“The questions, the criticisms – we welcome that because we do better by listening, learning and working together to improve,” Lambrew said.

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