Maine’s child welfare department continues to struggle with decisions about removing children from homes where they are at risk of abuse and, if they are removed, whether they can be safely reunited with their parents, according to an independent ombudsman’s report.

The state’s ombudsman, Christine Alberi, reviewed 90 cases – or about 15 percent of all inquires made to her office – during the fiscal year between October 2019 and September 2020. Among those, issues were uncovered in 38 cases, although challenges with the state’s child welfare system have been ongoing for two decades.

In the most serious case reviewed by Alberi, a child was reunified too quickly after caseworkers failed to assess the parent’s progress or assess the parent’s new partner. The parent and the new partner then had an infant while the older child was being reunified.

There was no assessment done of the infant safety’s, and the baby died “at the hands of one or both parents a few months after the reunification case was closed,” Alberi wrote. The older child then re-entered state custody.

As part of her report, Alberi offered suggestions for how the Office of Child and Family Services could improve by offering better and more regular training for employees. But she also acknowledged that Maine is still in the beginning stages of major reforms precipitated by the high-profile deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy in late 2017 and early 2018 that exposed failures in the system.

“I think there has been a hope that suddenly everything would start to get better over the last couple of years,” Alberi told lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee last week while presenting her 2020 report. “Unfortunately, sometimes it takes the death of a child to be a catalyst for change in child welfare … but I think we’re at the beginning of this and I think it’s going to take a lot of creativity and working together moving forward to really make the department into sort of a model of child welfare.”

The Office of Child and Family Services disagreed with some points raised in Alberi’s report, particularly that it’s not doing enough training of caseworkers. But it also acknowledged that caseloads remain high, even as the agency has added more staff.

“OCFS has benefitted from several financial initiatives that have resulted in additional caseworker and supervisor positions,” it said in response to the ombudsman. “While OCFS’ efforts to fill these positions and train new staff have been quite successful, there is also recognition that it takes time and experience to build new staff’s casework skills. At the same time, a large portion of our supervisory staff are relatively new to the supervisory role.”

OCFS also has partnered with the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine to review existing policies, improve the quality and quantity of training available to staff, and strengthen the agency’s ability to effectively engage staff in ongoing training opportunities that are relevant to their work.

Some reforms had begun while former Gov. Paul LePage was in office, including adding more funding for staff, while others have been launched by the current administration of Gov. Janet Mills. But problems in the state’s child welfare system have been ongoing for decades.

Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Humans Services, which includes OCFS, said Mills has included in her most recent budget proposal $6.8 million for continued child welfare improvements focused on preventing abuse and neglect and modernizing the core information technology system. This funding includes an additional 15 caseworker positions that would take on work that is currently being contracted out to private caseworkers under a program known as alternative response, which would be eliminated.

The number of reports of suspected child abuse or neglect investigated in fiscal year 2020, roughly 13,500, represented a 12 percent increase over the previous year. In the last five years, reports have nearly doubled. The number of children in state custody also increased from 2,180 to 2,378, or 9 percent, between the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years.

Child protective caseworkers have an extraordinarily difficult job, Alberi said, and none of them makes decisions alone. Nevertheless, there were numerous instances last year where she reviewed a case in which protocol was not followed.

In one case, two children were left in unsafe circumstances for months due to an incomplete assessment. Once information was gathered, risk was not recognized. An investigation was later opened after a baby in the family was born drug affected. The older child lived with relatives at the time, but they had not been assessed thoroughly and that child was not seen by DHHS for five months.

The infant returned to the mother’s care, even though safe sleep concerns for the infant were reported. Six months later, a protective order was filed to take the infant into state custody, but it took four days for caseworkers to locate the child. Once both children were removed from the home, “DHHS identified serious current and historical safety concerns for the relatives,” Alberi wrote.

In another case, caseworkers investigated a parent who tested positive for drugs when they were supposed to be in treatment and who exposed a child to two unsafe partners and became homeless.

“DHHS relied on relatives to ensure the safety of the child with the parent but did not contact the relatives for months at a time,” Alberi wrote. “DHHS had a long open service case and clear guidance was not given to either parent. There was no family plan documented or communicated. The unsafe parent made little progress during the 10 months of DHHS involvement and the child continued to reside part time with the unsafe parent.”

There were other examples where safety plans put in place were not followed or families went months without any follow-up visits from caseworkers. The pandemic was a factor in some of those cases, Alberi said, and she commended child welfare staff for “transitioning practices to try to ensure that children, families, and child welfare professionals were and are as safe as possible.”

In its response, OCFS said, “As with the Ombudsman’s recommendation regarding investigations, OCFS has reviewed each individual case discussed in this report and the data gleaned will inform decisions about opportunities to enhance caseworker practice. At the same time, there is a need to recognize that while OCFS has a primary role in the child welfare system, there are many other variables and players within the system that impact outcomes in cases.”

Lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee thanked Alberi for her report, although one, Sen. Joseph Baldacci of Bangor, pointed out that her office lacks authority to hold the department accountable. The ombudsman operates outside of DHHS to review cases but can’t penalize the department or force any policy changes. Alberi’s report from last year covered a lot of the same ground as this year’s version.

Baldacci, an attorney, said he’s been involved in child protective cases numerous times in his career.

“There are times when the department is criticized as too intrusive and then when it’s not being intrusive enough,” he said. “I think those are unfortunate swings that have been going on for a long time.”

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