Maine reported that more children died in 2021 from abuse, neglect or in households that had prior involvement with the child protective system than in any year on record.

According to a report released last week by the Department of Health and Human Services, 25 child deaths were reported last year to the Office of Child and Family Services. That doesn’t include at least four deaths that were classified as homicides but haven’t been added because the criminal cases have not been resolved.

Last year’s total is by far the highest since DHHS began tracking such deaths in 2007. The previous high was 19 in 2019, and the average over the past 15 years has been 11.5.

Of the 25 deaths reported to the office last year, 10 were ruled accidental. Prior to 2021, the highest number in that category was four.

There were also seven deaths reported in the category “other,” which includes suicides and all deaths not deemed either accidental, natural, homicide, related to co-sleeping or classified as sudden unexplained infant death. Nineteen of the victims were male. Eight were less than 12 months old.

Although homicides often get the most attention, the state has been trying to educate parents about other risks, including co-sleeping – the practice of parents and children sharing a bed – and other preventable accidents such as ingesting illegal drugs.


The high number of recent deaths is another reminder of the ongoing challenges facing the state’s beleaguered child protection system, which is under review by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

“The public release of this quarterly update reflects the department’s commitment to transparency around child deaths, which is central to our efforts to improve child safety in Maine,” DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said, adding that the state’s child welfare ombudsman also is now alerted to all child fatalities reported to the child and family services office.

The ombudsman, Christine Alberi, has raised long-held concerns in her most recent reports to DHHS about weaknesses in two areas: determining whether to remove a child from a home for safety reasons and deciding when a child should be reunified with family after a removal.

In an email Wednesday, Alberi said the high number of deaths is “clearly very concerning,” but she also said “it is difficult to determine what the deaths mean in the broader picture of child welfare without knowing about each individual case.”

In addition to the review by OPEGA, the second in less than four years involving the Office of Child and Family Services, lawmakers are set to consider a host of proposals this session meant to strengthen Maine’s efforts to protect vulnerable children.

The family services office already has made a host of changes in recent years, including improving training of caseworkers, increasing wages and strengthening communication among stakeholders such as police, hospitals and schools. Many of those reforms were prompted by the deaths of 4-year-old Kendall Chick and 10-year-old Marisa Kennedy in late 2017 and 2018.



But another series of high-profile deaths late last spring and early summer renewed scrutiny of the system and prompted calls for even more reforms. In three of those cases, charges or murder or manslaughter were brought against parents.

Last month, lawmakers heard from union officials representing caseworkers who said workloads remain too high, something they fear is endangering children and leading to burnout and turnover.

Robin Upton Sukeforth, a field representative with the Maine Service Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989, said she has been holding meetings throughout the state over the past few years, and that child welfare workers have expressed frustration about “frequent policy changes, unreasonable caseload and unreasonable mandatory overtime.”

She said workers have begged DHHS for overnight staffing to help alleviate overtime, but to no avail.

“Front-line caseworkers feel that no one listens nor cares, and the only solution is to stop working,” Upton Sukeforth said.


The family services office is required by law to file an annual report on staffing and caseloads. The 2021 report, submitted late last month, showed the department had 364 caseworkers statewide, which was 33 fewer than needed. The largest staffing gap was in the Franklin, Oxford and Androscoggin district, which was short 13 caseworkers, followed by the Kennebec/Somerset district, which was short 11 positions.

Farwell said last month that Gov. Janet Mills plans to address concerns about child protection staffing on nights and weekends in her supplemental budget, which has yet to be finalized.

The Maine Legislature is set to consider seven bills dealing with child welfare and child protection services in the coming weeks, according to Senator Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, who serves as chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Health and Human Services. Claxton said his committee will take up several of those bills over the next two weeks.

“It is always at the top of our list,” Claxton said of creating a better system to protect Maine children from harm. “A lot of hard questions have been asked after all of last year’s child deaths.”


Senator Bill Diamond, D-Windham, remains optimistic that the Legislature can make changes to the child protection system before he retires this year. Diamond, who has logged 20 years in the House and Senate, has worked with four different administrations, but says true transparency can only be achieved  if the Department of Health and Human Services is willing to let outsiders examine more closely how their system works and be open to changes in its procedures for making sure vulnerable children are being kept safe.


“We don’t know anything more now about their policies and procedures than we did before. We just want to make the system better,” Diamond said. Another sign of good faith would be if the DHHS were to support the child welfare and protection bills pending before legislators, he said.

Diamond sees positive changes coming especially as the public becomes more aware and brings pressure to bear on their representatives.

“We are starting to get some traction, but only because the public has become more involved,” Diamond said. “Still, the only way we are going to make any headway is when the Office of Child and Family Services is willing to make changes.”

The deaths tracked by the Office of Child and Family Services fall into one of three categories: they are ruled homicides by the Office of the Medical Examiner, regardless of whether the child’s family had any history with child protection; they include findings of abuse or neglect, regardless of whether there was any history with child protection; or they were proceeded by some involvement with child protection, even if that death was ruled accidental, natural or of undetermined causes.

From 2007 through 2021, there were 172 child deaths in Maine that fell into one of those categories, including at least 32 that were homicides. There has clearly been an upward trend more recently. In the last five years, there have been 81 child deaths, compared to 49 in the previous five-year period.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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