A proposal to reform Maine’s beleaguered child welfare system by creating a new department in state government received strong support in the Maine Senate Wednesday from lawmakers frustrated with long-standing problems.

But the plan still faces additional votes in each legislative chamber, and the Mills administration has called for an in-depth review of the proposed reorganization.

The Senate vote comes as lawmakers have been working to revamp the child welfare agency overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. The Office of Child and Family Services has come under intense scrutiny in recent years following the deaths of several children from abuse or neglect after past contact with the agency. The office also has struggled with staffing vacancies, high caseloads among child welfare workers and a shortage of foster families.

“It is a fact that the failures of Maine’s child welfare system – the Office of Child and Family Services – are as plain as day,” said Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, the sponsor of L.D. 779.

“Sometimes you have to tear down the old barn before you build a new one,” he told colleagues in a Senate floor speech. “That’s where we are today. The Department of Health and Human Services is too lax, too unaccountable, and the Office of Child and Family Services needs to be separated from it.”

The bill would establish a Department of Child and Family Services separate from DHHS to oversee child welfare, children’s behavioral health and early childhood services. It would have its own commissioner who reports to the governor.


It was approved 22-8 with bipartisan support in an initial vote in the Maine Senate Wednesday and will now be sent to the House of Representatives. The bill would need to be funded, and calls for an additional allocation of $4.2 million for the 2024-25 budget year.

Jeanne Lambrew, the commissioner of DHHS, submitted testimony on the proposal to the Health and Human Services Committee in January, saying that the department has expressed concerns about it in the past. Lambrew said the department already has done significant work to reduce bureaucracy and improve programs that serve children and families.

Separating child and family services from the department that also coordinates and pays for basic needs like food supports, MaineCare, and services for mental health and substance use disorders could also reduce effective child and family supports and duplicate administrative work, Lambrew wrote.


A similar bill from former Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, was considered in 2021 and passed the Senate but failed to garner support in the House.

Lambrew said the department would be willing to reconsider its position if an in-depth review were to indicate that the cost of a new department for child and family services could improve child safety more than other investments.


She said a review could be done by the existing Blue Ribbon Commission to Study the Organization of and Service Delivery by the Department of Health and Human Services, which is expected to meet through the summer and fall and report to the Legislature in November, or by an independent organization with a knowledge of state government.

“We would recommend that this proposal be considered only after such a review,” Lambrew wrote.

Some lawmakers who opposed the proposal said they too would want to see a review done before getting behind the plan.

“The majority of the HHS committee feels the entire (idea) should go to the Blue Ribbon Commission for a deeper, comprehensive dive,” said Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee. “They will be reporting back to the HHS committee, who can then report out legislation with concrete action steps.”

Moore said simply creating a new department will not solve the problems in the state’s child welfare system and risks a decrease in collaboration with other programs and initiatives run through DHHS. She said there have been recent changes in the department, including the appointment in January of a new director of the Office of Child and Family Services, and time is needed to see if they’re working.

Sen. Mike Tipping, D-Orono, said lawmakers have heard repeatedly about burnout and vacancies among child welfare workers. “They’re asking for resources and help, but they’re not asking – at least not from us – for a reorganization,” Tipping said.


“I understand the arguments about structure, about oversight, about focus and sending a message, and I agree with them, but I find myself against spending even one cent on new letterhead before addressing the real issues,” he said.

Timberlake, in an interview after Wednesday’s session, said that Maine could look at how other states have reorganized their child welfare offices to help lay the groundwork for a change. He agreed it will require some additional review and research but said lawmakers need to make the change because the department so far has not successfully addressed its problems.

“It’s not something that if it passes, 90 days from now will change instantly,” he said. “It will take some study and work to get there. But it’s something that needs to be done.”


Other lawmakers who supported the bill said the culture of DHHS is broken and a structural change is needed immediately.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said the department is too big to know what’s happening on the front lines.


“I’ve been working on the Government Oversight Committee for years and there has not been improvement,” Keim said. “By every measurable standard, child and family services has gotten worse. The department cannot fix itself. They give excuses. They keep telling us the programs they’re working on, but they’re not improving.”

Keim said the state must rebuild a new department dedicated to child welfare. “It is beyond time to make an overhauling change and save our children,” she said.

Maine’s child protective services program has been under scrutiny in recent years because of high-profile cases of abuse and neglect that have resulted in the deaths of several young children. They include the 2021 deaths of Jaden Harding, Hailey Goding, Maddox Williams and Sylus Melvin, all of whom had prior involvement with the Office of Child and Family Services.

The Government Oversight Committee has also heard testimony in recent months from front-line workers who have been telling lawmakers that high workloads, poor upper management, and a lack of mental health and substance use services is causing a downward spiral in the office.

Mills has proposed $6.8 million in her supplemental budget to support services for children in state custody, add positions such as trainers and legal aides to support child welfare caseworkers, and initiate a reclassification of caseworkers and supervisors to ensure they are properly compensated.

Those steps are expected to help reduce caseworker vacancies and give caseworkers the time and expertise they need for investigations, reunification and support of children and families. They also add to recruitment and retention payments for child welfare caseworkers that the department announced in February.

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