It’s been years since a series of tragedies exposed Maine’s child welfare system as fatally flawed and, despite a lot of attention, no one can say it’s any better today.

In fact, the system appears to be teetering on the edge of collapse, as caseworkers plead for more resources and support from top officials who don’t seem to appreciate how bad things are.

In the meantime, who knows how many children are being left unprotected from abuse and neglect?

Maine Tribes Federal Laws

Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference on Jan. 17 in Augusta. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press, file

Gov. Janet Mills may have inherited this mess from the LePage administration, which gutted the Department of Health and Human Services and left the ranks of child welfare workers too thin to do its job properly.

But it’s the governor’s problem now, and what’s she’s doing is simply not working. Worse, her administration won’t admit it.

More evidence of the failures within the Office of Child and Family Services came in an internal review released in September, which found that the child welfare system often has trouble identifying children at risk, and does not adequately address those risks when it does find them. The report states that Maine’s rate of recurring maltreatment is double the national standard, and has risen steadily in recent years.


The findings echo those from several earlier reports, including one from the Maine Child Welfare Services ombudsman in January, which found “substantial issues” with more than half of the cases it reviewed and a “downward trend in child welfare practice.”

In one case after another, the ombudsman reported, the state’s child welfare workers failed to see that a child was being kept in a risky situation, either because they did not gather enough information or they failed to act on the information they did have.

It’s the same set of shortcomings we’ve heard about since 2018, when a series of child deaths brought the latest round of scrutiny onto DHHS. They are the result of cuts made to the child welfare system by then-Gov. Paul LePage at a time when the opioid crisis, and the lack of mental health and substance abuse services, were causing an increase in child abuse and neglect. Caseworkers became overwhelmed, unable to give each of the complex cases before them the attention they needed, opening huge cracks for abused kids to fall through.

Gov. Mills and the Legislature have since made a number of investments in the child welfare system. Some are in long-term prevention strategies that will take some time to bear fruit.

But others were designed to help give caseworkers a more manageable workload, so they can make accurate assessments of the risks facing the children and families they work with. Thus far, the effort has been a failure.

Speaking to a legislative committee in recent weeks, former and current caseworkers say the system is breaking under the pressure of increasing caseloads. Many positions remained funded but unfilled, and those left are forced to work long hours under great stress, with the knowledge that a mistake could put a child’s life in jeopardy.


Managers, the caseworkers say, have given them little support and inadequate training. Caseworkers feel they are being left out in the cold by upper management, and that feeling is leading many of them to consider leaving. Without improvement, the Office of Child and Family Services will continue its spiral downward.

The people in charge of fixing this mess have to admit there’s a problem before anything will get done.

The Mills administration, however, has repeatedly downplayed criticism. DHHS blamed the state’s broad definition of maltreatment on the high rates found in Maine. Todd Landry, director of OCFS, has cited the difficulty of gathering evidence against uncooperative parents, and of dealing with the increasingly complex family situations caused by mental illness, poverty and substance abuse, as reasons for the department’s shortfall.

But those excuses don’t explain why Maine’s rate of abuse keeps getting worse, nor do they recognize that every other child welfare agency in the country is dealing with the same set of circumstances.

Under Gov. Mills and the leadership at DHHS, Maine has made solid investments in children and families, supporting them in ways that should lessen abuse and neglect in the coming years.

We were hoping that additional efforts to support caseworkers, and the kids they protect, would be showing progress by now. They’re not. It’s time the administration admits it isn’t doing enough.

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