The state’s child welfare system continues to fall short of its duty to protect children, the Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman said in its annual report released Wednesday.

The 20-page report cites “substantial issues” with more than half of the child welfare cases reviewed and a “downward trend in child welfare practice.”

The Office of Child and Family Services issued a written response saying the work it does is complex and individualized and that it has been working and continues to work to make systemic improvements.

The ombudsman’s office, which acts as an independent watchdog over the Office of Child and Family Services, reviewed 83 cases involving 162 children. Complaints regarding these cases were issued between Oct. 1, 2021, and Sep. 30, 2022.

Executive Director Christine Alberi, who authored the report, found that 46 of those cases were handled in a way that negatively impacted the safety and interests of children or the rights of parents. In multiple instances, the Office of Child and Family Services failed to gather enough information to accurately determine whether a child was safe to remain in a home or, even with adequate information, failed to recognize a risk to a child, resulting in delayed removal of children from unsafe circumstances and the returning of children to unsafe situations, the report says.

“Some of the issues during both investigations and reunification resulted from not gathering enough information, but increasingly there are cases and situations where the department had sufficient facts to determine that the child was unsafe but did not recognize the risk to the children and act accordingly,” the report says.


The Office of Child and Family Services, while agreeing that it is important to gather and analyze as much information as possible, said it is not always feasible as parents don’t always cooperate with the office and that even with all the correct information, the decision to remove a child from a certain situation must be carefully weighed against the trauma caused by removal.

“Over the last year, OCFS has continued to advance policies, training and support for staff that seeks to aid them in navigating the careful balance of the potential negative and positive impacts of removal and reunification decisions,” the Office of Child and Family Services said in its response.

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, who serves as chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said he will propose a bill this legislative session that seeks to establish the Office of the Inspector General, an independent agency that will provide a degree of accountability and independence that Baldacci says is missing.

The inspector general would lead a team of investigators with the authority to subpoena documents, initiate investigations and provide oversight of Maine’s child protection system. Alberi does not have the ability to subpoena documents, Baldacci said. The office would be modeled after a similar agency in Nebraska. The office of ombudsman would remain in place under his proposal.

“The ombudsman’s report is not surprising,” Baldacci said during a phone interview Wednesday night. “It only highlights the recurring systemic issues and problems in the system. What we really need is an independent office that will bring accountability to the system.”

The ombudsman program is a nonprofit contracted by the governor’s office and overseen by the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. Its mission is to improve child welfare practices by reviewing individual cases, providing information on the rights and responsibilities of families, service providers and others involved in the system and referring individuals requesting assistance to the appropriate party.


The program responds to complaints or inquiries from those concerned about the handling or outcome of a case and chooses cases to investigate based on degree of alleged harm, the credibility of the caller, the resolutions available, the complexity of the issue and the history of those involved, among other things. The ombudsman received 801 inquiries between Oct. 1, 2021, and Sep. 30, 2022, an increase of 93 from the previous year.

The Office of Child and Family Services said the ombudsman’s work provides important insights into the challenges facing it, while noting that Alberi’s office reviewed less than 1% of the more than 11,000 reports and cases concerning 2,336 children managed by child and family services. Its response says the work the department does is nuanced and can’t be generalized.

The issues cited in the ombudsman’s report are not new, and echo the report issued a year ago. But the latest criticisms come after the Mills administration and the Legislature have focused energy and attention on efforts to improve the system in the wake of a series of child deaths in the past two years.

The report suggested that staff continue to have too much on their plates and that the state entities that work with children and families need to come together to reduce calls to child protective services in the first place by increasing mental health and substance use services for adults and children, both suggestions child and family services said they support.

Former Senator Bill Diamond, a Windham Democrat who served eight years on the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, said he plans to form a foundation focused on child welfare and protection issues.

“The child protection system is broken, it’s just absolutely broken,” Diamond said in a phone interview Wednesday night. “The state really doesn’t protect children. Their words are hollow because things just keep getting worse.”


Diamond said the solution would be to separate the Office of Child and Family Services from the Department of Health and Human Services and operate it as an independent agency.

“There needs to be more accountability and transparency. Now, it’s caught up in the bowels of this huge bureaucracy and we can’t seem to get to it,” he said. “We need to take the system apart and rebuild it.”
Maine’s child protective services program has been under scrutiny in recent years because of high-profile cases of abuse and neglect that have resulted in the deaths of numerous young children. Four children under the age of 4 died in June and August of 2021.

Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services in June 2021 asked an outside agency – Casey Family Programs – to assist with an investigation and evaluation of the deaths of the four children.

“This is a call to action. In addition to our own review and ongoing work, we requested Casey Family Programs bring to bear its wealth of experience and national perspective to help us, and we’re bolstering StrengthenME to ensure Maine families have access to the support they need to cope with the significant stresses of the pandemic,” DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said at the time.

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.

In all, 34 children died in Maine in 2021 after having contact with the state’s child protective system or as a result of homicide, abuse or neglect. At least 27 of those children had some sort of child protective history before their deaths, according to state data, which is not a comprehensive list of all child deaths.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story