Bobbi Johnson, center, then acting director of the Office of Children and Family Services looks to Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of Maine DHHS, during testimony in front of the Government Oversight Committee last month. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The new director of the state agency charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect told lawmakers Friday that her top priorities in the coming months will be hearing directly from caseworkers and others inside a system that been under sustained scrutiny.

Bobbi Johnson, who was named director of the Office of Child and Family Services on Jan. 18, said she will spend the next month visiting district offices to hear concerns and feedback from staff about ways to improve working conditions and morale. Problems with both have prompted some workers to leave the department.

Johnson also vowed to “seize every opportunity” to learn from others with firsthand experience, including foster parents, youth in care, service providers and parents and families involved with the system.

“One of the key things I have learned during my time with OCFS is not to be afraid of difficult conversations or hard problems, because they are where the opportunities for growth and improvement exist,” she told lawmakers.

Johnson outlined her plan and priorities for lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee, which has been conducting in-depth reviews of the deaths of four children in 2021, all of whom had prior involvement with the child protective system. That inquiry has since broadened, and over the fall lawmakers heard testimony from caseworkers and other front-line workers about a lack of support and training from managers, something that has been an ongoing issue dating back years.

Johnson took over for Todd Landry, who resigned in November as lawmakers were becoming increasingly critical of his performance. She previously served for eight years as the associate director of the Child Welfare Division, which is expected to undergo a third-party review in the coming months.


Some lawmakers Friday questioned whether Johnson, who has worked in the department for nearly 30 years, could change what’s been described as a toxic work culture.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said he has received calls from caseworkers who are skeptical that Johnson will be able to make the changes needed to reverse management issues that are driving out caseworkers.

“What do I tell these folks when they reach out to me?” Timberlake said. “I do get concerned about where we have been and where we’re going when we don’t shine a new light on a situation. And I’m very concerned we haven’t done that.”

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, who also appeared before the committee Friday, defended the appointment of Johnson, saying caseworkers wanted a new director who was already familiar with the department, state laws and the issues plaguing the office.

“I appreciate that some see Bobbi’s depth of experience as a drawback – we see it as a source of strength,” Lambrew said.

Johnson said that her increased focus on soliciting staff feedback and a planned management audit of the department’s structure and organization will help inform other structural changes.


Lambrew said the agency audit will be conducted by Public Consulting Group, of Massachusetts, which currently produces the department’s annual caseload analysis. That’s expected to be ready by March 31.

The commissioner also provided more information about the department’s plans to remove the state’s behavioral health program from the child welfare office and relocate it to the Office of Behavioral Health, the same state agency that administers adult behavioral health services. She said the change should be completed by the end of June, ending Maine’s status as an outlier in the U.S. for having those programs in separate offices.

But Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, who leads the committee, questioned whether the administration has the authority to restructure those offices without legislative approval, either through a standalone bill or budget initiative.

“I’m not questioning the policy decision,” Hickman said. “I just want to make sure the Legislature retains its oversight over any reorganization that any agency does, so as not to set a precedent that executive branch agencies can just reorganize without legislative review.”


The oversight committee also continued to narrow down policy recommendations for lawmakers to consider this session to improve child protection.


The committee found unanimous agreement on several items relating to improving hiring, retention, training and support staff for caseworkers, and finding ways to reduce caseloads and prevent caseworker burnout.

But they differed sharply over whether OCFS should be removed from the Department of Health and Human Services, the largest bureaucracy in state government.

Timberlake’s bill to create a separate agency had a public hearing last week, but members of the Health and Human Services Committee have yet to discuss it.

The bill earned the support of some community service providers who were previously skeptical of the proposal, because the leader would become part of the governor’s cabinet and could better advocate for needed resources.

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, said the move wouldn’t solve all the issues, but was needed to prevent DHHS from stonewalling lawmakers and others conducting outside reviews.

“The size of the department makes it nearly impervious from third party review,” he said. “This is a dramatic action, but it’s one we must take. … We need to open up the department to greater scrutiny and this is a critical part of that.”


Hickman agreed, comparing it to fixing the foundation of an old barn.

“Structural reform to me is the only thing that will matter in the long run,” he said.

Rep. Maggie O’Neil, D-Saco, opposed the proposal because of its $4 million price tag. Instead, she would like to see more financial support for struggling families so they don’t become involved in the system.

“I see this as an inefficient use of resources and not directed at addressing the problems in front of us,” O’Neil said.

The committee is expected to continue refining recommendations over the coming weeks and plans to submit a final report for other policy committees to consider this session.

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