Maine’s child welfare ombudsman told lawmakers Wednesday that “deep-seated” problems still exist in the system for protecting children at risk of abuse or neglect, as the state agency responsible continues to face investigations and reviews of its practices in the wake of recent child deaths.

Christine Alberi, whose office acts as an independent watchdog over the Office of Child and Family Services, said her staff has reviewed 84 cases so far this year and has found “substantial issues,” in exactly half.

In most of those cases, the problems arise during the initial investigation, when child protective caseworkers decide whether or not to remove a child, or during family reunification, when a child that has been taken into state custody is returned to caretakers. Alberi offered no further details concerning the issues her staff identified.

During 2020, the ombudsman reviewed 90 cases and found problems with 38, again most during initial investigations and reunification. Alberi raised similar concerns prior to 2020 as well, a fact that boiled over this summer when two members of her board of directors resigned in protest because they felt her office wasn’t being listened to.

“We need to do something different than what we’re doing,” Alberi said Wednesday during a joint meeting of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services and Government Oversight committees, the latter of which is conducting an investigation of the state child welfare agency. “There have been no real improvements to any of the outstanding issues I’ve seen.”

Prior to Alberi’s remarks, lawmakers heard from Office of Child and Family Services Director Todd Landry and from representatives of an outside agency the state contracted with this summer to conduct a review. That agency, Casey Family Programs, and another group, Collaborative Safety, released a 29-page report last month that concluded there are persistent staffing challenges that worsened during the pandemic, as well as poor communication between families and other stakeholders that collectively put vulnerable children at risk.

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Lawmakers from the two committees were not bowled over by the Casey Family Programs report, which didn’t cover much new ground and didn’t get into any specific details about recent child deaths in June that prompted the state to ask for the review in the first place.

“You did what you were asked,” Sen. Joseph Baldacci, D-Bangor, told representatives from Collaborative Safety. “The failure is on the state. You’ve given us a framework, but we need to do a lot more in terms of an investigation. This is a starting point, not an end point.”

Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, said he was hoping to see a more in-depth analysis on what went wrong in recent cases that led to child deaths, and not another “research paper.”

“I’m wanting to see a real aggressive action plan in Maine going forward, and I’m not seeing it yet,” he said.

Alberi also found the Casey report lacking.

“The report does not address many things that prevent the systems from working the way we want them to,” she said when asked by a lawmakers if she thought the report was adequate.

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The Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability is conducting a thorough review of the family services office and will use the recently released report as source material. The first report from OPEGA is expected to be presented to lawmakers in January and could lead to legislative proposals during the next session.

Baldacci said he wants to see more oversight of the family services office, either by the ombudsman or some other agency – someone with “more teeth” to ensure accountability.

Sen. Donna Bailey, D-Saco, asked the representatives from Collaborative Safety whether they talked to any families as part of their review. They did not.

“How did you analyze the interface between child welfare and these families without including the families,” she asked.

Both Bailey and Baldacci are attorneys who have worked on child protection cases.

State officials have said they are working to improve the agency and have already begun implementing recommendations from the Casey Family Programs report, including updating policies for after-hours staffing and strengthening lines of communication between agencies that assist families where abuse or neglect is found.

Landry, in his brief remarks to lawmakers Wednesday, said his agency has done better with staffing retention, a persistent problem in years past, and is committed to transparency as it continues to make reforms.

Alberi said she has appreciated a more collaborative relationship with the Office of Child and Family Services in recent months but also said, “it’s still not there in terms of a full partnership.”

As the family services office faces sustained scrutiny even while it makes incremental changes, more recommendations are likely from the outstanding OPEGA review and from lawmakers in 2022.

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