The Mills administration on Thursday appointed a new director to oversee improvements in the state agency charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect.

Bobbi Johnson has been serving as acting director of the Office of Child and Family Services since Todd Landry resigned late last year amid mounting questions about his leadership. Landry faced intense criticism from lawmakers as they investigated the state agency following the deaths of four children within weeks of each other in 2021.

Bobbi Johnson Maine Department of Health and Human Services photo

Johnson is a 30-year department veteran who started as a caseworker in 1995. She will be tasked with reforming what employees have described as a toxic work culture that is causing high turnover among caseworkers.

Staffing shortages, high caseloads and forced overtime are negatively affecting abuse investigations and casework, and adding to pressures on foster families, who are also leaving because of a lack of support from the department, especially for children with troubling behaviors.

The Department of Health and Human Services also announced Thursday that Johnson will launch a management review of the Child Welfare Division, where she has been associate director since 2015. And the department plans to restructure the Office of Behavioral Health to better serve children and families.

Gov. Janet Mills and DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said Johnson’s experience, compassion and skill make her the right person to lead the office, which has a staff of 900 people.


“Director Johnson’s depth of experience, empathy, and compassion are central to our ongoing improvements to child welfare,” Mills said in a written statement. “These improvements will also include a restructuring of the Office to elevate its focus on child welfare while better aligning the delivery of important behavioral services for Maine children through the Office of Behavioral Health.”

Lambrew said the leadership change and initiatives announced Thursday are the result of feedback from staff, legislators and other partners.

A spokesperson for the state employees union would not provide a reaction to the appointment.

Maine has one of the highest child maltreatment rates in the country and has been getting worse at preventing repeated mistreatment.

Lawmakers are considering a range of possible changes, including creating an inspector general to oversee the office and making OCFS its own department, so that its leader would hold a cabinet-level position to better advocate for resources and reform.

They’re also looking at ways to better support caseworkers, increase access to community services for parents and children struggling with behavioral health issues, and better supporting foster families, especially those licensed to care for children with high needs.


DHHS spokespeople said Johnson wasn’t available for an interview Thursday.

“I’m honored to take the helm of the Office of Child and Family Services after 28 years working to improve the health and safety of Maine children,” Johnson said in a written statement. “I come to this role with deep gratitude for the opportunity to better help Maine families, a sense of urgency to meet the challenges we face, and a belief that with continued hard work and dedication, we can.”

When Landry left in November, DHHS announced that it would conduct a nationwide search for a new leader. A department spokesperson said a job posting with national groups, state job boards and informal networks cost about $200 and generated about a dozen applications.

The announcement drew a lukewarm response from Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, who serves on the oversight committee investigating the department and has proposed separating the office from DHHS.

“Bobbi Johnson has been around for a long, long time,” he said. “I think we need new blood into that system. Bobbi’s a good person – don’t get me wrong – but I think we need new blood.”

Bill Diamond, a former Democratic state senator from Windham who founded a nonprofit focused on improving the child welfare system, said he was disappointed by the decision.


“I was thinking it was going to be an opportunity to make a change in direction and show a willingness amongst themselves to challenge themselves,” Diamond said. “Instead, they’re keeping their head down and moving in the same direction.”

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Lisa Keim, R-Dixmont, said she expects Johnson to have “ready answers to the demand for an immediate course correction” for the office, given her experience.

Johnson’s appointment was applauded by Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, as well as child welfare advocates.

“Bobbi’s depth of experience as a caseworker, a kinship resource parent, and within the child welfare system for nearly three decades makes her the right expert at the right time as we work to better support Maine children and families. I look forward to working with Bobbi in her new role,” Meyer said in a written statement.

In written statements, Eric Meyer, CEO of Spurwink, a nonprofit service provider, called Johnson a “force for children,” and Melissa Hackett, coordinator with the Maine Child Welfare Action Network, said Johnson’s established relationships with state and community partners provide her with leverage.

The Mills administration said it plans to hire an outside organization to conduct a “rapid management audit” of the Child Welfare Division, which Johnson led for the last 8 years. With a March 31 deadline, the audit will examine the organization of the Child Welfare Division’s central and district offices, its communication processes, culture and leadership support.

DHHS also announced that it would remove Children’s Behavioral Health Services from OCFS and move it to the Office of Behavioral Health to better balance staffing, while also centralizing behavioral health services for families.

Timberlake said he’s interested to learn more about those plans. “The good thing is they’re paying attention and now they’re taking a look,” he said. “They’re listening.”

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.