Jan. 21—State lawmakers overseeing an investigation into possible systemic failures related to the deaths of four children last summer expressed surprise Friday after an initial report from the state's watchdog agency did not reveal any significant gaps in the state's child welfare system.
But the Office of Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability is continuing its review and told lawmakers it will provide more specific findings and recommendations in two more reports, to be presented in March and September.
The Legislature's Government Oversight Committee ordered a review of the system after four children died within a month of each other last summer. Murder or manslaughter charges have been filed in three of those cases. In at least one, the death of 3-year-old Maddox Williams in Stockton Springs, the family had prior contact with child protective services, court documents revealed.
Sen. Nate Libby, a Democrat from Lewiston who chairs the oversight committee, said he expected the first report to be mostly informational, but he still expected OPEGA to find obvious gaps or cracks in the system that could explain the recent spate of child deaths.
"I'm sort of surprised to see there doesn't appear to be a lot of gaps, but there is quite a bit of overlap," Libby said. "If there were gaps, you partially explain how some families and some children fall through the cracks. When there's overlap, you sort of scratch your head and say, 'How did nobody pick up on what was going on?'"
The first report was an informational brief intended only to give a general overview of the various groups that oversee child welfare programing in the Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Child and Family Services. OPEGA Director Lucia Nixon said the reports due in March and September will include findings and recommendations to improve office's initial investigations into potential abuse and neglect, as well as the reunification process, respectively. Those areas had been flagged repeatedly by the state's child welfare ombudsman.
Nixon told lawmakers that the federal government provides extensive oversight of child welfare in all states, including Maine. Additional oversight is conducted by the Maine children's ombudsman, state lawmakers and four advisory panels. She said information sharing between the panels and the state did not seem to be an issue, and the advisory panels overlapped to some degree in terms of expertise and membership.
"I just get really concerned about how this overlaps each other," said Jeffrey Timberlake, the Senate Republican leader from Turner. "People get lost and things get lost."
Turner also wondered whether the more substantive report due by the end of March would provide lawmakers with enough information to pass reforms during the current session.
The presentation on Friday to the Government Oversight and Health and Human Services committees foreshadows a week of increased focus on child safety and welfare at the State House. The HHS committee will hold two additional briefings next week on child safety and welfare and the Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold hearings on several bills aimed at improving child safety.
Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, said the HHS Committee, which he co-chairs, has seven related bills that will be heard in the coming weeks. He said the committee also has a placeholder bill to address any problems that may be identified in the March report.
"I don't think we're going to end up needing to wait," Claxton said. "We may learn additional things from the March report and the September report, but at this juncture, we have plenty of information to proceed with those bills."
Future OPEGA reports will focus on areas that have been consistently flagged by Christine Alberi, the independent children's ombudsman who investigates cases based on complaints from the public. Alberi has repeatedly stated that problems arise during the initial investigation when child protective caseworkers decide whether or not to remove a child, or when a child that has been taken into state custody is returned to caretakers.
DHHS, however, said in a statement last month that the state has a fundamental disagreement with Alberi about when children should be taken into state custody and how long they should remain there.
"While OCFS recognizes the perception that children are safer when removed, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that removing a child from their home has the potential to inflict harm or trauma," the DHHS report says. "In addition, there is little research to support the belief that, in general, children who enter state custody are safer than they would be if they had remained in the home with efforts undertaken to address safety concerns."
Tension between the ombudsman's office and DHHS boiled over in July, when two members of the ombudsman board of directors resigned out of frustration that systemic reforms had not been implemented following the high-profile deaths of Kendall Chick in 2017 and Marissa Kennedy in 2018.
Advocates, meanwhile, offered their own framework to improve child safety this week.
The Maine Child Care Action Network, which includes organizations such as Opportunity Alliance, Spurwink, Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine, and the Maine Children's Alliance, issued a call to action for state lawmakers on Wednesday that urged more focus on prevention and supporting families, as well as adding staffing to state departments.
The group recommends that the state take the lead on developing, implementing and overseeing a statewide plan to prevent abuse, rather than reacting to abuse after it occurs. One way to do that, they said, is for the state to take the lead in distributing federal funding for prevention efforts. The group said Maine is one of only five states that allows funding to go directly to nonprofits outside of state governments.
The group also recommended more investments in community support systems, such as family resource centers and recovery resource centers, especially in rural parts of the state that they said have the highest per capita rates of mistreatment. The group noted that nearly half of the state's family protective cases were single-parent households and 76 percent of substantiated maltreatment cases were neglect and emotional abuse related to parental mental health and substance use disorders.
OPEGA's report comes as lawmakers appear eager to take action on child welfare this session, putting in a range of bills to increase legislative oversight as well as staffing and independence for the ombudsman.
A spokesperson for Gov. Janet Mills has said the governor is eying her own slate of reforms and looked forward to working with lawmakers this session. And Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, and Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, have floated their own five-point plan to address child safety by tackling substance use and poverty.