The state’s child welfare watchdog told lawmakers Friday that child protection programs have improved two years after two high-profile deaths, but state workers continue to struggle with initial assessments of children’s safety and when to reunite families.

“It’s all been a good start and everything is headed in the right direction,” Maine’s child welfare services ombudsman, Christine Alberi, said in a briefing to the Health and Human Services Committee. “But I think it is going to take more time than we all would like to bring things to where they should be.”

Alberi spelled out her conclusions in a recent report after reviewing more than 100 cases handled by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services from October 2018 to September 2019.

The Child Welfare Services program within DHHS has been under close scrutiny since two young girls – 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs – were killed by their parents or caretakers late in 2017 and early in 2018. Both girls died of prolonged, severe abuse, and subsequent investigations faulted DHHS as well as police for failing to intervene despite numerous complaints and warning signs.

DHHS launched multiple new initiatives and hired dozens of caseworkers and other staff following the girls’ deaths, and Gov. Janet Mills is asking lawmakers to approve additional child welfare positions. But the high-profile cases led to a surge in calls about potential abuse to DHHS, as well as a spike in children being placed in state custody.

Alberi’s office received 611 “inquiries” or complaints about DHHS’ child welfare program during the yearlong review period, 153 of which resulted in full case reviews. Of the 98 cases that were closed last year, 37 cases found problems with the initial assessment or investigation, with the decision on reunifying a child with a family or other issues.

“During a time of so much change and shifting policy, it is difficult to fully analyze causes of issues, but it seems that the change in policy alone has not yet led to significant improvement in accurately determining the safety of children at the outset of child welfare involvement,” Alberi wrote in her report.

In one case Alberi reviewed, DHHS failed to conduct a follow-up assessment after initial interviews about suspected abuse. The assessment was not completed until five months later after one parent “severely injured one of the children, an infant, causing life-threatening and lifelong injuries.”

In several other cases, DHHS failed to consider the risk to children posed by parents who had severe substance use disorders. And in another, several children were taken into state custody because of “clear evidence of the parent’s continual physical abuse,” but a subsequent newborn stayed in the parents’ custody for more than a month.

Eleven of the cases reviewed by the ombudsman found problems with the family reunification process. In multiple cases, DHHS failed to conduct adequate follow-up assessments on the safety of living situations after children were returned to parents.

Parents also were given visitation rights with lower levels of supervision even though the department didn’t ensure that they were still participating in drug treatment programs. In one case, parents with a history of substance use disorder lost custody of a newborn because a parent had accidentally killed a previous child by rolling onto the infant during an “unsafe sleep incident.”

“The parents continued to exhibit concerning behaviors, but without clear reason visits started in the home with the parents and supervision was quickly reduced,” the report reads. “The department did not learn for nine months that the parents had not been in substance abuse treatment of any kind.”

In written responses included in Alberi’s report, DHHS officials said the additional 62 child welfare positions approved in September as part of the state budget “are anticipated to reduce the workload associated with the dramatic increase in reports, assessments and children in care.” Those staff are are just now being deployed around the state, DHHS said.

The department implemented investigation processes and guidelines in December 2018 to help frontline caseworkers with the initial assessment. Additionally, DHHS is preparing to expand statewide a “background check unit” pilot project that provides staff with information from national criminal history databases.

DHHS is also partnering with the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service to update department training programs and to launch a “field instruction unit” that will allow students to receive credit by working at the Office of Child and Family Services. These students could then be a talent pool for future caseworkers.

“Over the last year, OCFS has had the opportunity to learn from staff and partner with national experts to improve casework practice,” the department stated. “The result of that effort is a focused prioritization of strategies developed with staff, stakeholders and national experts. Implementation of those strategies has begun.”

The ombudsman’s annual report is just the latest in a long list of investigations and reviews of DHHS practices that followed the two girls’ deaths. Additionally, details of potential missed opportunities to intervene – such as numerous police visits to Marissa Kennedy’s home and bruises noticed by a caseworker days before her death – came out in court proceedings against their abusers.

The fiancee of Chick’s grandfather was sentenced last June to 50 years in prison for murder. Kennedy’s stepfather, Julio Carrillo, was sentenced to 55 years in prison in August after pleading guilty to murder, and her mother, Sharon Carrillo, is expected to be sentenced next week after being found guilty of murder in December.

The girls’ deaths shocked Mainers and directly led to a surge in suspected abuse calls and child separations from their families. In 2016, the year before Chick died, DHHS received 7,463 reports of abuse and/or neglect that were later deemed appropriate enough to conduct an assessment. In 2018, the number of abuse reports swelled to 11,831.

Alberi told the committee the summer of 2018 was “really, really difficult” for DHHS because additional staff had not yet been hired to help deal with the deluge of additional calls. That led to long gaps between initial home visits and follow-up assessments.

“The situation today is better and many issues have been addressed substantially from all of those hirings,” but it still takes time to get staff trained and up to speed, she said. And while new policy is good, Alberi said, it doesn’t take the place of adequate training and experience for caseworkers.

“It just takes time,” Alberi told lawmakers. “And unfortunately, right now the number of kids in state custody is still going up. I believe the governor announced more new positions, which may help with some of that. But there is a lot of strain on the surrounding systems as well, such as foster homes and the courts, of course.”

Rep. Patricia Hymanson, a York Democrat who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, said seeing those trends is critical because it takes time to see whether reforms are working or not.

“It’s hard to be patient, so having the trend lines is very important,” Hymanson said.

Alberi also stressed to lawmakers that despite the shortcomings identified in her report, child welfare workers “are doing their job under very difficult circumstances, day in and day out.”

“Caseworkers and supervisors continue to need our help and support, and it would be a mistake to think these types of errors are due to a lack of caring or investment or engagement on their part,” Alberi said.

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