The leader of the state agency charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect came under fire Wednesday from lawmakers frustrated by a series of high-profile deaths of children who had previous contact with the agency.

Lawmakers from both parties aired their frustration at the end of a four-hour meeting of the powerful Government Oversight Committee, which signaled that it will ramp up its investigation into the child welfare system. The panel is considering meeting more frequently than its current schedule of once or twice a month, putting other projects on the back burner and exercising its broad powers to make progress in the investigation, which several members said was “failing.”

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio

Lawmakers, who aim to form legislative proposals by January, grilled Todd Landry, director of the Office of Family and Child Services, which oversees child protective services. Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, said the committee has cut the department slack for challenges stemming from the pandemic and service cuts under the LePage administration, but lawmakers’ patience is wearing thin.

“It’s not getting better,” Mastraccio said to Landry. “I want to hear more about where you think you are in relation to your leadership of that department. I am not satisfied we are moving in the right direction.”

Landry also drew criticism from Rep. Sawin Millet, R-Waterford, a mild-mannered lawmaker who also has served in the executive branch under four different governors.

“When Dr. Landry came in, I was one of his biggest defenders,” Millett said. “But frankly, as I look back over the six years, I haven’t seen any evidence we have moved the ball down the field to our ultimate destination of ensuring … that we have made the situation better.”


Rep. Sawin Millett

The frustration stems from a report in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram showing that the Department of Health and Human Services is getting worse at preventing repeated abuse and neglect of children.

Maine’s rate of repeated maltreatment increased from 15.4% in 2018 to 19.6% in 2021. That’s twice the national average of 9.7%.

The report also found that the state adequately identified risk and safety concerns in half the cases reviewed, but it adequately addressed and monitored risks only 26% of the time.

The report came in the wake of disturbing new details about the Christmas 2022 death of 3-year-old Makinzlee Handrahan, of Edgecomb.

An affidavit supporting the arrest of Tyler Witham-Jordan, who was dating Handrahan’s mother, revealed two weeks ago that state caseworkers had investigated a report of abuse only two months before the girl’s death and Witham-Jordan was a suspect in that abuse. He has now been charged with murder in her death.

An attorney representing Witham-Jordan, however, has disputed that his client was a suspect in the abuse investigation, noting that two doctors had examined the girl and found her injuries to not be consistent with abuse.


Lawmakers have repeatedly investigated the state’s child welfare system in response to child deaths in recent years. The Mills administration has significantly boosted funding for services, staffing and training, but that has not reversed the trend, leaving lawmakers at their wits’ end.


Assistant Senate Minority Leader Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“We’re all shocked and just horrified at the news that just keeps coming out,” Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, the Senate minority leader, told Landry. “If we were take a vote of today, I would take a vote of no confidence in you, because the buck stops there. It really does.”

Landry said the newspaper article failed to mention any of the positive trends contained in the nearly 360-page report, which is required annually by the federal government. He encouraged lawmakers to read it in its entirety.

“I very much regret in some of the media reports, they chose only to present certain pieces of that report,” Landry said. “There are many, many positive aspects of that report that have not been regrettably reported in the media.”

Todd Landry Photo by Kevin Gaddis Jr.

Peter Schleck, the director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which is spearheading the oversight committee’s ongoing investigation, pushed back against a Department of Health and Human Service’s spokesperson’s assertion that Maine’s downward trend in preventing repeated abuse and neglect was somehow tied to the state’s broad definition of maltreatment. No similar assertion was made in the report.


“When we talk about year-over-year performance, we’re not comparing ourselves to another state,” Schleck said. “The comparison is to Maine, and Maine is negatively trending. So all the conversation about ‘we have a broader definition’ – I just want to put that to rest here and now.”


The article cited by lawmakers also outlined issues identified in a previous report describing why the system may be failing. In addition to a lack of training for new caseworkers, the report said other caseworkers felt the department’s reliance on a computer program to determine whether a child is safe in a home, or should be removed, was preventing them from using their professional knowledge and experience.

Those issues, coupled with pressure to meet certain timelines, contribute to incomplete investigations and a high rate of turnover, which leaves remaining staff with more work than they can manage, the report stated.

Rep. Jessica Fay, a Raymond Democrat who co-chairs the committee, also raised questions about staffing, retention and training.

“I’d like to have a more in-depth conversation about how we’re supporting caseworkers and whether they have the proper tools to do their jobs,” she said.


Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, who co-chairs the committee, suggested that the committee should begin using more of the power afforded it under state law.

Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Kennebec Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Hickman did not provide specifics, but the oversight committee has the power to subpoena records and require witnesses to testify under oath.

“The statute gives the committee very broad power and we have not used it, so we are going to have to discuss in a very near future how best to utilize what we have,” Hickman said. “Because the nonuse of power … that you have to right certain wrongs, is also an abuse of power.”

The committee is currently suing the administration over the agency’s refusal to give members access to full child protective case files for its investigation. Currently, those records are only provided to OPEGA staff, who issue public reports to committee members. A Superior Court justice ruled against the committee, but members voted to appeal.

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