State lawmakers have proposed a suite of child welfare reforms this legislative session, but the members of the Government Oversight Committee are worried that simply throwing more money and people at the problem won’t be enough to fix a broken system.

The committee vowed Friday to use the closing days of the legislative session to come up with a more aggressive plan to correct the institutional deficiencies listed in the latest report from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

“I’m totally exasperated about where we go from here, and how we get there,” said Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Androscoggin, the ranking Republican on the oversight committee. “I know we’re trying, but nothing’s changed.”

More money and caseworkers alone won’t fix the biggest problem that haunts the Office of Child and Family Services, Timberlake said – a lack of communication. Some people are too scared of retaliation to talk, he said, while others remain silent to cover up the mistakes of their coworkers.

Suggestions considered by the panel ranged from creating a taskforce to review the circumstances of last year’s child deaths, to creating a whistleblower program to flush out government shortcomings before a child dies, to relaxing the confidentiality policies that can divert blame when a death happens.

The committee will meet again Wednesday – one week before the legislative session is scheduled to close – to agree on a plan.


According to the OPEGA report, excessive workloads, poor training and tight timelines hamper state investigations of alleged child abuse and neglect. It did not draw a link between those deficiencies and the four child deaths last July that triggered the ongoing state investigation.

Office of Child and Families Services Director Todd Landry has told the oversight committee that the department has tried to make improvements while avoiding “policy whiplash” in the wake of last summer’s high-profile child deaths.

Lawmakers have proposed eight bills this session to improve the system while also increasing state oversight. Some have become law, such as an expansion of the office that investigates public complaints. Others, such as a bill to limit the workload of child welfare caseworkers, are still pending.

Gov. Janet Mills has earmarked funding in her proposed supplemental budget to hire 16 extra caseworkers and three supervisors to cover the overnight, weekend and holiday shifts that have caused a third of all child welfare employees to consider quitting on a daily basis.

This suite of reforms and funding represents progress, but it is not a cure-all, one lawmaker said Friday.

“Changing cultures in a large organization is like turning a glacier,” said Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “It takes time and concerted, focused effort.”


Claxton said he flinches when fellow lawmakers talk about “fixing the problem,” because there is no single quick fix for child welfare reform. He likened it to an onion with many individual layers, each of which must be peeled back, before a cultural change can occur.

“We’re on the path to doing a number of things,” Claxton said. “We have no way of knowing if it will be enough. What is enough and how do we measure that? It’s very frustrating, and I share that with everybody, but it’s going to take some time to turn the iceberg.”

Claxton was alone in his optimism during the five-hour hearing and work session. Others, including some lawmakers who aren’t known for impassioned speeches, expressed their frustration that the session would end before real reform is achieved.

Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, lamented the Office of Child and Family Services’ lack of action and follow-through. He said the committee needs “to really raise the stakes here and put together a plan of action because it’s not there, and it’s seemingly not even being spoken to.”

He went on to call out the office and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services.

“The department folks who are watching us here today, hear our collective frustration at the lack of comprehensive and precise and focused action and the need to get our act together and move forward together, particularly in the near term and with a clearer focus,” Millett said.

The tone didn’t sit well with the department, which pushed back with a Friday night email statement.

“Some lawmakers used today’s Government Oversight Committee hearing as a forum to make false claims about the Department and to question the motives of our staff,” said DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew. “This is detrimental to our shared goal, and it comes at the expense of staff morale and a respectful, substantive discussion and debate that can improve the system and protect children.”

Lambrew did not say which statements made during the forum were allegedly false, or specify which lawmakers had impugned the motives of DHHS staff. While Republican members voiced the loudest frustration, committee Democrats, including those who lead it, agreed with the general call for action.

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