Gov. Janet Mills unveiled an $8 million plan Monday to improve the state’s child welfare system by strengthening the Office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman, adding caseworkers to reduce pressures on existing staff, improving staff training and expanding support for families.

Calls to reform Maine’s child welfare system intensified last summer after the deaths of four children, at least one of whom had prior contact with the state. Lawmakers have submitted several bills to strengthen oversight of the program and the state’s nonpartisan watchdog agency is investigating the system at lawmakers’ request.

On Monday, Mills announced her child welfare initiatives for the current session, while saying her administration continues to focus on the root causes of child abuse and neglect. The governor’s plan comes only days before she is scheduled to deliver a State of the State address and present a supplemental budget to lawmakers.

It also comes after the Department of Health and Human Services reported last week that 25 children died last year – the most since the department began tracking deaths in 2007. That doesn’t include at least four deaths that were classified as homicides and haven’t been added to the total because the criminal cases have not been resolved.

Of the 25 deaths reported to the office last year, 10 were ruled accidental. Seven deaths were 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.

“Every child in Maine deserves to grow up in a safe and stable environment that provides them with every opportunity for success,” Mills said in a written statement. “This is why my administration is working to address the underlying issues that often contribute to child abuse and neglect, like substance use disorder and poverty, and to improve Maine’s child welfare system overall.”

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Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said Mills’ plan seems to pull together a series of reforms being proposed by individual lawmakers. Diamond, who has called for reforms and sponsored a bill to add staff to the ombudsman’s office, said he’s encouraged to see momentum building to address longstanding issues in the state’s beleaguered child welfare system.

“We’ve got some movement and some traction,” Diamond said. “This is the first we have heard from the governor on this. All of this is really coming together based on public demand.”

But more needs to be done, Diamond said, especially in making the Office of Child and Family Services more transparent. That’s why he will continue to push forward a bill he sponsored to require the office to report on a quarterly basis to the Government Oversight Committee, which meets year-round and has the power to issue subpoenas.

“That would force transparency to some degree,” he said. “Instead of a one-way communication, it would be nice if we could have a two-way communication with the Office of Child and Family Services.”

As part of her broader plan, Mills announced a bill that has bipartisan support and would strengthen the Office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman, which investigates complaints from the public about interactions with the Office of Child and Family Services. Currently, the ombudsman, Christine Alberi, serves under a one-year contract and has one employee. Alberi supports the governor’s proposal.

CHANGES TO OMBUDSMAN’S OFFICE

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The governor’s bill would increase the ombudsman’s term to five years and allow the hiring of additional staff. It also continues to require that DHHS inform the ombudsman when a child fatality occurs with child welfare involvement. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn; Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais; Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot; and Rep. Kathy Janver, R-Chester.

“The Office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman is such an important part of our child welfare system,” Moore said in a written statement. “In a time when we are working hard to make improvements to this system, the governor’s bill will strengthen this important arm of taking care of the children in the state.”

Rep. Javner, the top Republican on the HHS Committee and a bill co-sponsor, said that more resources are needed for child protection and the governor’s bill would “benefit the whole state.”

House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, agreed that child safety should be prioritized, but said she needed to review the details and consider public testimony before endorsing any specific proposal.

“We certainly support the position of our lead Republican on HHS that high importance has to be placed on our child welfare system,” Dillingham said in a written statement. “We will carefully review supplemental budget details when they are released by the governor and consider public testimony on individual pieces of legislation.”

Claxton and Meyer co-chair the Health and Human Services Committee, which is holding public hearings on several related bills next week.

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Mills’ supplemental budget proposal also will include new investments to hire additional staff, provide health coverage for staff and allow for additional office space. The budget proposal is expected to be unveiled in the coming days.

ADDRESSING CASEWORKER BURNOUT

The governor also said Monday that she plans to implement expert recommendations from groups such as Casey Family Programs, Maine Child Welfare Advocacy Network, the Maine Child Welfare Strategic Plan and state lawmakers. Those include filling key staffing gaps, strengthening support for families during reunification, expanding home visit coaching and creating a parent mentoring program.

The governor said in a news release that the proposed budget initiatives, in addition to ombudsman investments, would cost about $8 million.

Nearly 40 percent of that investment seeks to address burnout among child protection caseworkers.

Last month, a state employees union presented to lawmakers a member survey that showed child protection caseworkers are being pushed to the brink. The survey highlighted high caseloads and long hours, and union leaders urged lawmakers to stop mandating overtime shifts to cover overnights, weekends and holidays, something they said DHHS would not discuss during contract negotiations. The high workloads had 30 percent of the respondents considering resigning on a daily basis and 23 percent considering it on a weekly basis, according to the survey.

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Mills’ plan would make a $3 million investment, including federal funds, to add 16 caseworkers and three caseworker supervisors dedicated to night and weekend shifts, as well as additional support staff at the Office of Child and Family Services and a new regional associate director dedicated to supporting policy and training. That funding also would add safety-science staff to review cases where a child is harmed, rather than simply focusing on deaths.

The governor also is proposing a $2.2 million investment, including federal matching funds, in the Homebuilders Program to support families during reunification. That program would focus on intensive, in-home crisis intervention, counseling and life-skills education to teach families problem-solving skills. An additional $2 million investment in the family visiting program would aim to ensure that children do not return to state custody.

And a $200,000 investment into a Parent Mentor program would be used to hire parents who have experience with the child welfare system to help families through the process, advise on policy and help train new caseworkers.

RESPONSE TO DEATHS

The proposals come in response to four child deaths 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 2017 and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in 2018.

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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 also is conducting an investigation. Its initial findings on oversight of the child welfare services were presented to lawmakers last month, and the Government Oversight Committee will hold a public hearing on Feb. 11.

Alberi 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. Two members of the program’s board of directors resigned because they didn’t feel DHHS was listening to Alberi.

Alberi said in a written statement that she supports the governor’s proposals.

“The office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman is grateful to the governor and to sponsoring legislators for the proposed legislation and budget initiative to strengthen our office and provide much needed additional resources,” Alberi said. “This bill will enhance the independence and productiveness of our office in order to more effectively do our part in the statewide efforts to enhance the protection of Maine’s most vulnerable children.”

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