AUGUSTA — Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services announced Monday it is taking immediate action to improve child safety following the report of 26 child deaths since 2017.

The department said in a statement it would launch a public awareness campaign about unsafe sleep environments for children, especially infants, noting that 48 of 107 child deaths from 2014 to 2019 were related to unsafe sleeping situations.

The department will also increase the number of home visits by public health nurses to families with new babies in an effort to help families who are struggling with substance use disorder.

According to the release, 33 percent of child abuse victims in Maine have parents with active drug use disorder as a risk factor and 18 percent have a parent with alcohol use disorders.

“We are deeply saddened by these children’s deaths and are taking immediate actions as part of our broader work to reform the child welfare system to prevent such tragedies,” Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Human Services, said in a prepared statement Monday. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

“We want parents who are struggling with a substance use disorder to know that help is available and that, through initiatives like this, we can fight addiction and support people on the path to recovery as well as protect Maine children,” said Gordon Smith, Maine’s director of opioid response.

The announcement came on the last day of the bench trial of Shawna Gatto, who is accused of killing 4-year-old Kendall Chick after the girl was placed by DHHS in the custody of her grandfather, Stephen Hood, and Gatto, his fiancée, in 2017. Justice William Stokes said Monday he will issue his verdict on April 30.

Gatto told police she had been caring for the little girl the day she was found unresponsive in a bathtub, and police said they found bloodstains in multiple places in the Wiscasset home.

The Public Health Nursing Program and Maine Families Home Visitation Program, which serve all new parents in Maine, will offer parenting guidance and connect families with children under age 2 to community-based supports.

The department also plans to submit an application for federal support through the Maternal Opioid Misuse Initiative, a program to address the widespread impact of the opioid epidemic and provide pregnant women and mothers with treatment and recovery supports to reduce the number of drug-affected births in Maine.

“The Maine Department of Health and Human Services takes seriously its responsibility to protect the safety and welfare of children,” DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a prepared statement. “We are deeply saddened by these children’s deaths and are taking immediate actions as part of our broader work to reform the child welfare system to prevent such tragedies.”

The department will use “Safe to Sleep” campaign public service announcements for radio, television and weekly community newspapers in an effort to reach all new parents in Maine, whether they are involved with DHHS child protective services or not, the release stated.

“Safe sleep guidelines include placing babies on their backs to sleep on a firm surface free of loose bedding and soft objects, and at a comfortable room temperature,” the release stated. “Parents are encouraged to share a room with their baby for sleep, but infants should not sleep in an adult bed or on a couch or chair.”

According to Lambrew, the new initiatives build on previous actions taken by the department.

Todd Landry Photo by Kevin Gaddis Jr.

Those actions include hiring more than 100 staff to fill vacancies in Maine’s child welfare system, giving child welfare caseworkers access to better background information on individuals when assessing abuse and neglect allegations, and ending a waiver with the federal government, which allows the state to access federal funding for all eligible expenses rather than operating with a fixed funding amount.

An initial analysis completed within DHHS estimated that ending the waiver early would result in access to an additional $3.7 million for services for children and foster families in Maine.

The Legislature is debating several bills aimed at strengthening the child protective services system. On Monday, a legislative committee endorsed a bill that requires DHHS to develop a plan for lowering caseloads and set specific caseload limits and a timeframe for meeting them.

In March, Lambrew announced the hiring of Todd Landry to be the first permanent director of the Office of Children and Family Services, which was led by temporary and interim directors for years under the administration of Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Landry, who starts in his position on April 29, most recently was chief executive officer of the Lena Pope Home in Fort Worth, Texas, a nonprofit that serves children and families. He previously served three years as director of Nebraska’s Division of Child and Family Services. He also sits on several national boards, including as treasurer for the Child Welfare League of America, a national coalition of private and public agencies working to improve the lives of vulnerable children and families.

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