Jeanne Lambrew, right, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and Bobbi Johnson, acting director of the Office of Children and Family Services, listen to lawmakers during testimony before the Government Oversight Committee on Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

AUGUSTA — The head of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged problems in the state’s child welfare program Wednesday, telling lawmakers that listening to and supporting caseworkers will be the priority in her search for a new director to lead the office.

Lawmakers welcomed the admission as a positive step, but also made it clear that they want to see improvements during the transition to new leadership and will continue to pursue longer-term reforms.

DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew acknowledged that a high rate of staff turnover and chronic vacancies were among the challenges confronting the agency, which is charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect. Lambrew said each child death is a tragedy that leaves a hole in a family that will never be filled.

“This committee’s focus on children who died at the hands of their caregivers has been heart wrenching,” Lambrew said during an opening statement. “We mourn their loss. I mourn their loss. And, I ask myself and lose sleep over the question: could each child have survived if something different had been done within the child welfare system?

“I also share your frustration,” she said. “Performance on some key child welfare metrics has worsened. Staff vacancy rates have risen. It is important to acknowledge that.”

Lambrew also told lawmakers that she has listened to caseworker testimony in previous hearings and was angered by reports that caseworkers were discouraged from filing for overtime and disappointed that caseworkers don’t feel supported. “We are looking into all of them,” she said.


Lambrew appeared before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee Wednesday afternoon to face questions about the state’s child protective services program as it faces scrutiny from lawmakers following a spate of child deaths, several critical reports about the agency’s handling of specific cases and damning firsthand accounts from caseworkers who testified publicly before the committee.

Members of the Government Oversight Committee listen as Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Androscoggin, left, speaks during the hearing Wednesday in Augusta about the shortcomings of Maine’s child welfare system. “The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem,” Timberlake said. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Committee members are looking for ways to fix what has been described as “a broken system,” with frustrated and burnt-out caseworkers leaving because of a lack of support from leadership and services for families they serve.

Lawmakers on the committee appreciated Lambrew’s acknowledgement of the problems in the child welfare system, which they say had been glossed over by the former director of the program.

“The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem,” said Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, who has been focusing on a lack of leadership within the department. “Over the last four years of hearing it, that’s where I see the problem, personally. It goes all the way to the top, which starts with you, commissioner.”

Bobbi Johnson, the recently appointed acting director of the Office of Child and Family Services, also sat before the committee to answer questions. Johnson, who has worked for the department since starting out as a caseworker in 1995, told lawmakers that she would make worker empowerment and well-being a priority.

Lambrew said that a nationwide search for a permanent director would prioritize the ability to listen to and communicate with front-line workers. The deadline for applications is Dec. 20, she said.


The session came one week after Todd Landry resigned as the director of the Office of Child and Family Services, a position he held since April 2019. Landry, who had been under increasing criticism for his leadership style from lawmakers and caseworkers, cited “personal reasons” as the cause of his resignation.

Wednesday’s hearing also followed a series of increasingly critical reports about the state’s involvement in cases leading up to four child deaths that occurred within weeks of each other in the summer of 2021. The oversight committee ordered its watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, to review and report back on the circumstances surrounding each death. It also is suing DHHS to gain full access to the original case files, which the department says are only available to OPEGA, not lawmakers. The Maine Law Court heard oral arguments in the case Wednesday.

The most recent report focused on the death of 6-week-old Jaden Harding, whose father, Ronald Harding, was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to prison in September. It detailed what it called “errors on top of errors” in the state’s nearly decade-long involvement with Jaden’s mother, Kayla Hartley, who was not charged in her son’s death.

Child advocates told lawmakers that the issues outlined in that OPEGA report were similar to other cases. The problems included a lack of understanding about the family’s full history with the department, such as reports of substance-exposed infants, and reports of physical and sexual abuse.


Gov. Janet Mills and lawmakers have invested millions of dollars into the child welfare system in recent years, but the department’s own reporting has shown a decline in the department’s ability to recognize and prevent repeated maltreatment of children. Landry faced criticism for being reluctant to acknowledge his agency’s shortcomings, focusing instead on planning efforts and new state investments.


Additional state investments have included adding caseworker positions to help ease workloads, but the state has struggled to attract and retain employees. That has increased workloads for the remaining workers, who also are forced to work overtime shifts to supervise children who are taken into state custody and staying either in offices, emergency rooms or hotels until a foster placement can be found.

Caseworkers, who work in high-stress situations and often are subject to the anger and hostility of parents, told the Government Oversight Committee that the staffing crisis is largely because of a lack of support and communication from middle and upper management, as well as a lack of mental health and substance use treatment resources needed to improve child safety and keep families together.

One caseworker said they were working in a “broken system,” citing the lack of support services for families, and another described her office as a “war zone,” adding that it feels like she was on a “sinking ship” without a captain. Other caseworkers detailed forced overtime, including emergency and overnight shifts that forced them to spend less time with their own families.

“The thing that bothers me a lot is our own workers don’t feel supported,” Lambrew said.

Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of Maine Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledged problems with the child welfare system during her testimony before the Government Oversight Committee on Wednesday. She said a nationwide search for a new director for the Office of Child and Family Services would prioritize the ability to listen to and communicate with front-line workers. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Lambrew and Johnson said they were surprised by the rapid exodus of caseworkers over the last few years. The agency has 79 caseworker vacancies – up from 13 in December 2020, they said.

But Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, noted that a 2019 survey of front-line workers contained warning signs, with many caseworkers saying they were either seeking or planning to seek new jobs because of high workloads, burnout and stress, a lack of resources, concerns about their safety and pay. 


“It sounds somewhat new … but they have actually been saying this for quite some time,” Hickman, who co-chairs the committee, said to Lambrew. “I guess I’m wondering where the disconnect is.”

Several of the caseworkers to speak out publicly were from the agency’s Lewiston office, equating it to a “war zone.” Johnson said she didn’t know why so many of those workers were leaving that office in particular.

“I don’t know all the answers,” Johnson said. “It’s been a little surprising.”


Lawmakers said they would continue to scrutinize the department while the search for a new director is underway and after a new director is chosen. They warned against setting the expectation that a new director would come in with all of the answers.

Sen. Jill Duson, D-Portland, urged the department to develop an entry plan for the new director – one with clear goals, strategies and metrics for measuring progress. A new director alone, Duson said, should not be expected to fix all of the issues detailed by caseworkers and case file reviews.


“No matter what their good intentions are, that’s just not the way it’s going to happen,” Duson said.

Some lawmakers, including Timberlake, have been advocating for the Office of Child and Family Services to be separated from the rest of DHHS to increase transparency and accountability. Lambrew said DHHS has opposed similar efforts in the past, but would reconsider its position if an in-depth analysis showed that the costs and effort would provide better outcomes for families than other investments.

“We’re open to any good idea that will help Maine families and children,” Lambrew said.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said lawmakers are looking for immediate solutions to increase support for struggling caseworkers and would not be content with pleas for patience as a new director comes onboard and comes up with new plans. Keim said she wanted to hear more urgency from the commissioner and acting director.

“I just don’t hear enough coming from the department that makes me think that changes are coming soon enough,” Keim said. “And that needs to be said and that’s what you need to hear from us as lawmakers.”

Lambrew said she and Johnson stand ready to fully engage lawmakers throughout the next legislative session. She hailed Johnson’s 28 years of experience in child welfare, where she worked her way up the ranks to become the associate director of child welfare services.

“I have full confidence that acting director Johnson can do that (work). She has been in this job … many years and she knows the system very well,” Lambrew said. “Child welfare has been her No. 1 job.”

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