AUGUSTA — Advocates said Wednesday that they will keep pressuring state officials to reform the practices and culture within the state’s beleaguered child protection services, even though the Legislature has adjourned for the year.

The Office of Child and Family Services has been facing scrutiny for the last four years after a series of high-profile child deaths. Several investigations have been conducted and lawmakers took several steps in the last session to beef up staffing and address caseworker burnout, expand support for families in the system and increase oversight of the state agency.

But the 130th legislative session ended with some lawmakers feeling more needs to be done, so the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee agreed to continue its work throughout the summer. And some advocates say the problems can’t be solved with money or resources – it’s the fundamental culture of secrecy in the department.

“All of the money, staff and resources in the world will not change a broken system that refuses to work with all stakeholders,” Melanie Blair, a foster parent, said at a news conference outside the State House on Wednesday. “You will continue to see poor safety decisions made that will continue to cost the lives of Maine’s children.”

In addition to calling for a culture change at DHHS, speakers at the news conference suggested that the state places too much attention on family reunification, leading to dangerous situations for children. They urged state officials to work cooperatively on reforms with parents and advocates, who feel shut out of the process.

Deciding whether a child is safe enough to remain with the family or whether they need to be removed to prevent abuse or neglect is among the most agonizing decisions caseworkers and supervisors face. And there are fierce advocates on both sides of the debate. Investigations take up to 35 days and any final removal order must be given by a court. But a recent watchdog report cited poor training and heavy workloads as roadblocks to caseworkers conducting comprehensive safety evaluations.


Some Democratic lawmakers have highlighted the progress made last session.

Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, and Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, who chairs the education committee, detailed progress made in an Op-Ed to the Press Herald, saying committees spent hundreds of hours examining causes and enacting solutions.

“All told, the Legislature, engaging and working with DHHS and the Mills administration, has plotted a clear course toward improvement,” they wrote. “We have funded and enacted the tools to make it happen. The focus now must be on urgent implementation and tracking ongoing progress – not more talk and task forces.”


Wednesday’s news conference, attended by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, foster parents and child care workers, featured 178 empty pairs of shoes to symbolize the number of child deaths recorded since 2007, including accidental deaths. It took place as the oversight committee held one of several meetings planned throughout the summer to continue its examination of the issue.

The committee discussed, among other things, whether it could legally obtain specific case records that the department has deemed confidential but that could help fulfill its oversight mission.


Chief Deputy Attorney General Christopher Taub said state law was not entirely clear and that lawmakers could request such information as long as they reviewed it in a closed session. But he suggested that the Legislature’s full-time watchdog agency is best positioned to receive and review this information for lawmakers, and currently does.

Speaking at the news conference, Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, said that he and other state lawmakers on the oversight committee will continue to ask why so many children have died in Maine.

Last year, the state recorded 29 child deaths from a variety of causes, including accidents. And not all of those deaths involved families known to child welfare workers.

“(Why) is a question that will not be going away,” said Timberlake, who left the oversight committee meeting to attend the news conference. “We will not be going away. We will keep asking it and demand accountability and transparency from the DHHS to help fix the problem. You can’t fix a problem that if you don’t know what it is to begin with.”

Timberlake said it may be time for the state to break up the Department of Health and Human Services into two separate departments – something the Legislature considered and voted down last year in .



A series of child deaths has kept the department’s Office of Child and Family Services in the spotlight over the last four years.

In 2018, it was the horrifying deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick that prompted outside investigations into the department. Then last year, four children died in May and June, prompting additional outside investigations, including an ongoing probe by the Legislature’s watchdog, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

OPEGA has issued two reports to date – one looking at oversight of the child protective services and the other looking how the agency investigates allegations of neglect and abuse. It is expected to issue another report this fall on the process of reunifying a child who has been removed during an abuse investigation with their family.

Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, co-chairs the oversight committee and said DHHS has informed the committee that parents have been charged in all four child homicides in 2021 and that, while none of the children was in state custody at the time, two had state findings of abuse or neglect.

During the news conference, several people with experience interacting with the child protective services called for a culture change in the department.

Blair said she has been a foster parent in good-standing with the state for decades before a complaint from a community member led to the sudden removal of all seven of her foster kids, including a 3-year-old she was on the verge of adopting. She said six police officers and three caseworkers descended on her home at dinner time on Dec. 15 to remove the foster children.


It was, she said, “the most traumatic experience my family has ever gone through.”

Blair, who has four biological children, said her family was cleared after a 35-day investigation, but it took weeks of additional wrangling with the state over alleged license violations before she was reunited with her 3-year-old child. The other foster children went to other homes. She could never get a meeting with state officials making the decisions and could not get clear information from people she spoke to, she said.

“The amount of fight we had to put into this issue all could have been handled by a simple meeting with us that we requested several times,” Blair said. “We are a vested foster family with good relationships. Instead, the lives of 13 people in my home were disrupted in an unnecessary and traumatic way.”

DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell said the department is familiar with Blair’s testimony but could not comment, citing privacy laws prohibiting the state from responding with specific information.


Several people who spoke at the news conference, including Timberlake and Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said the department needed to change its culture, which they described as defensive and lacking in transparency and accountability.


Diamond is encouraged by the progress made last session by the Legislature, but he still believes that breaking up DHHS could help change the culture, adding he sponsored a bill in 2021 that was approved in the Senate but died in the House.

When asked if the culture could change without a change in leadership, Diamond said, “maybe not,” adding “we’re not suggesting a change in personnel or leadership.” He said the culture has not changed throughout the last four administrations, including Democrats, a Republican and an independent.

Timberlake, however, has less sure.

“Imagine if it was a private industry running DHHS,” he said. “Would these numbers be accepted if it was a private industry running it? I don’t think it would.”

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