The deaths of four children last summer is spurring lawmakers to propose more oversight and transparency for child protective services in Maine.

At least nine bills proposing changes to child welfare and protection received approval by legislative leaders to be considered during the session that begins next month. The upcoming “second session” is reserved for specific types of bills, including emergency legislation, budget bills and bills from the governor.

Although language is still being drafted for many of the bills, Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said he has never been more optimistic about enacting meaningful child welfare reform in his 20 years of advocacy.

“Instead of just adding caseworkers, which never solves the problem, we need a culture change over there,” said Diamond, who sponsored three bills and has been a longtime advocate for strengthening safeguards for children. “I’m really pleased with the amount of interest and awareness – it’s like nothing I have ever seen.”

Diamond said he sensed community support for reform during the fall, when he and other lawmakers traveled by foot and vehicle from Old Town to Wiscasset to hold listening sessions at sites were children have been killed in recent years. Now, he’s encouraged to see several bills aimed at strengthening child protection services by increasing oversight and expediting child homicide cases.

“The public caught on with this,” he said. “There is a lot of interest now. That’s a nice tide to see coming our way.”

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Spokespeople for Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau said the Democratic leaders will be monitoring the bills as they move through the committee process.

“The health and safety of Maine children is not a political issue; Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature are united,” Fecteau said in a written statement. “We must strengthen Maine’s ability to protect children. There is absolutely no hesitation around doing what it takes to keep children safe and continuing to advance policies that will support families and improve the services that protect children from abuse and neglect.”

It’s not clear if the governor will support giving lawmakers more oversight of the state agency that oversees protective services.

Lindsay Crete, the governor’s press secretary, highlighted steps Mills has taken to address staffing issues, including increasing pay, enhancing training and funding more than 70 new staffing positions to improve caseloads, reducing staff turnover. She said the state has increased the number of foster homes by 30 percent.

But Crete said the pandemic has stunted more systemic reforms and increased the pressures on families themselves, which contributed to the child deaths last summer.

Crete said Mills was developing her own policies and looked forward to working with lawmakers in the upcoming session.

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Maddox Williams Photo from the #justiceformaddox GoFundMe page

The legislation comes after four children all died within a month of each other last summer. Three of those deaths resulted in murder or manslaughter charges. 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.

The incidents renewed scrutiny of Maine’s child welfare system, which faced similar inquiries after the high profile deaths of 4-year-old Kendall Chick in late 2017 and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in 2018.

The state brought in Casey Family Programs to help investigate three of the four deaths in 2021. But lawmakers were disappointed with the results of a report issued in October, because it did not delve into details of each case.

The Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability is also conducting an investigation. Its findings are expected to be presented to the lawmakers in phases, beginning next month.

Kendall Chick

Christine Alberi, the state’s child welfare ombudsman, has been raising concerns about “deep-seated problems” in recent years, primarily 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. And two members of the program’s board of directors resigned because they didn’t feel DHHS was listening to Alberi.

Alberi did not respond to interview requests for this story.

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Several bills would increase the independence and devote more resources to the Child Welfare Ombudsman Program, an impartial office that’s supposed to help resolve concerns and complaints from people about the state’s Child Protective Services Department, which only has two staff members.

Marissa Kennedy

A bill sponsored by Sen. Chip Curry, D-Belfast, would make the ombudsman more independent and allow the office to share confidential information with lawmakers in closed session, so they can provide more effective oversight.

Curry said the bill is needed because the Department of Health and Human Services has routinely told lawmakers they’re addressing issues and hiring more staff, but there is no way for lawmakers to confirm that’s the case. He said empowering the ombudsman, whose role is to advocate for children and educate lawmakers, could be a way to bolster oversight.

“By law, the department can’t share a lot of information, so our ability to provide oversight is limited,” Curry said. “What’s clear to me now is we also need a stronger ombudsman office. We need to staff it up and make sure they have the independence to go where they need to go, find the information they need to find and engage on both of those missions.”

Specifically, LD 1755, would make the ombudsman position a gubernatorial appointment, subject to legislative confirmation, with a 5-year term and grant the ombudsman authority to provide investigative, oversight and advocacy services on a statewide basis to ensure the rights and safety of children and their families. Currently, ombudsman services are provided through a contract with the state.

The bill would also require the state to consult with the program on policy or changes in practice relating to child welfare and allow the ombudsman to participate in training, studies and policy development.

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It would also add two full-time associate ombudsmen and a full-time administrative assistant.

Diamond sponsored a different bill to bolster staffing in the ombudsman office and co-sponsored Curry’s bill.

Diamond also sponsored a bill, LD 1843, that would bolster oversight by empowering the Government Oversight Committee to monitor the Child and Family Services Office. That’s important, he said, because it’s the only legislative committee that meets on a year-round basis, and it has the power to issue subpoenas. The oversight committee would then report back to lawmakers, so they can make informed decisions.

“It’s a really unique committee and it’s something that we could use in the whole process of trying to reform and make meaningful long-term improvements to that office,” Diamond said, predicting resistance from DHHS. “I’ve learned over 20 years doing this that this is really a flaw in our system. We need constant oversight. That doesn’t mean constant badgering. That doesn’t mean it’s a negative thing.”

Diamond said his most important reform bill would require the court system to prioritize child homicide cases. Oftentimes, he said, trials are the only way for lawmakers to get details about how the system failed to protect children. And, he said, the 16 to 24 months it takes to bring a case to trial is too long to wait to receive that information.

“The reason things don’t change is because we don’t know what’s going on until there’s a tragedy,” he said.

Note: This article was updated Monday Dec. 27 to include a response from the governor’s office that was incorrectly omitted.

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