Two board members for the office that investigates and resolves complaints within Maine’s child protective services agency have resigned, citing frustration with the Department of Health and Human Services’ response to concerns about child welfare practices.

Ally Keppel, the immediate past president of the Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman board of directors, and board member James “Allie” McCormack said Monday their resignations stem from longstanding concerns about the department’s response to the ombudsman’s office, as well as issues with how the ombudsman position is structured. Those concerns were renewed after the recent deaths of four Maine children prompted the department to call in an outside agency to assist with investigations.

“We were so disappointed that nothing really changed after Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick and then we had four deaths,” McCormack said, referring to the high-profile deaths of Chick in 2017 and Kennedy in 2018, both of whom had involvement with the department, as well as the four recent deaths of other children. 

“You feel bad. The status quo ain’t working,” he added.

In a letter to the Portland Press Herald on Monday, Keppel and McCormack said they have spent a collective 16 years on the board and have heard the child welfare ombudsman, Christine Alberi, raise increasing concerns with the department, especially after the deaths of Kennedy and Chick.

“As time went by, reports from the ombudsman to the board took on an eerie familiarity, and the ombudsman’s 2019 and 2020 reports to the Maine Legislature continued to expose the same systemic safety issues that led to these needless child deaths,” the two wrote. “Another legislative session has gone by without any significant changes, and the newspaper articles reporting multiple child deaths involving some degree of DHHS involvement have arrived as feared.”

The recent deaths include the June 1 death of a 6-week old Brewer boy, the June 6 death of a 3-year-old Old Town girl and the June 20 death of a 3-year-old boy, Maddox Williams, of Stockton Springs. Parents in all three of those cases have been charged in connection with their children’s deaths.

A fourth case involved a 4-year-old Temple boy who died on June 17 from what police believe was an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound. In addition, police are continuing to investigate the June 24 death of a 4-year-old boy in Windham who was found hours after the state announced it would be bringing in an outside agency, Casey Family Programs, to assist in its investigation of the four earlier deaths.

It’s unclear to what if any extent the department was involved in the lives of the children who recently died, although court records show the family of Maddox Williams had involvement with DHHS during his short life.

“The department is committed to in-depth reviews of these recent deaths in order to learn and act to improve the safety of Maine children and families,” Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said in an email Monday. “This includes partnering with Casey Family Programs to gain the outside perspective of national experts and inviting the Child Welfare Ombudsman to participate in that process.

“The department has and will continue to provide the ombudsman with as much information as possible on the subset of cases her office chooses to review. This is in line with the process outlined in state statute and according to state and federal confidentiality laws that limit the information we can provide. We have and will continue to welcome the ombudsman’s contribution to efforts to improve the lives of Maine children and families.”

Farwell said the department could not provide further information on any of the recent deaths due to state and federal laws and to avoid compromising active law enforcement investigations.  

For McCormack and Keppel, the recent deaths played into a feeling of hopelessness that there will be improvements to child protective services and ultimately contributed to their resignations.

“I don’t know if (DHHS) is responsible, but I do know the ombudsman has continued to express the same systemic concerns in her annual reports to the Legislature and it was those same systemic issues that led to the deaths of Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick and we just didn’t see any improvements,” McCormack said.

Keppel said she has grown frustrated with DHHS’ “continued resistance to the information that is presented to them” and that following reports of the most recent child deaths, she thought she could make more of a difference continuing her work as a guardian ad litem and stepping away from the board, which also would give her more of an opportunity to speak out.

“I just thought maybe with all the drama that’s being generated by these stories about these children that a letter like this timed like this with a resignation, which is dramatic after so long, would maybe turn some heads, would maybe get some attention and generate more resources for the ombudsman program,” she said.

The three other board members, Kate Knox, Pam Morin and Virginia Marriner, did not respond to phone and email messages Monday.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who has been pushing to reform the state’s child protective services, applauded Keppel and McCormack for speaking out.

“I appreciate the bravery of these two board members, and I commend them for their years of service to the children of Maine,” Diamond said in a statement Monday night. “Their voices add to the chorus of those calling for badly needed changes within the Office of Child and Family Services, and I hope that their statement will help others see how desperately we need action and change.”

Diamond proposed legislation this spring that would have taken the Office of Child and Family Services out of the DHHS and created a separate Department of Child and Family Services. DHHS opposed the bill, which received bipartisan support in the Senate, but did not receive sufficient support in the Maine House to become law.

In their letter and interviews, McCormack and Keppel expressed concerns about the structure of the ombudsman office, which works to assist people in resolving concerns and complaints regarding involving the child protective services agency. The office, created in 2001 following the high-profile death of a 5-year-old girl at the hands of a foster parent, is independent from DHHS, but its role is advisory.

After the deaths of Kennedy and Chick, McCormack said the board wanted to see legislative changes to the ombudsman position, including extending the tenure of the ombudsman’s contract, which he said is currently a one-year position that must be renewed annually. The position could also benefit from a statutory requirement for the department to report a child death’s to the ombudsman, who often hears about the deaths through unofficial channels or at the same time as the public, McCormack and Keppel said.

Alberi, who has served as ombudsman since 2013, did not respond to an email or phone messages Monday.

In a legislative hearing last week, she criticized the department’s Office of Child and Family Services for failing to make improvements over the past several months in how it handles child protective cases.

Alberi said the office has over-relied on “quantitative” measures, such as how long children remain in state custody, and not given enough weight to “qualitative” issues, such as how well caseworkers evaluate a child’s safety in the home.

“The department has continued to struggle with practice issues and decision-making around two crucial points of child welfare involvement: when making the decision whether the child will be safe in the home during the initial investigation, and when making the decision whether the child will be safe in the home once reunified with parents,” she said.

Alberi also spelled out those concerns in her 2020 report to the governor and Legislature, which includes responses from the department. In the report, DHHS “strongly countered” Alberi’s assertion that there is a lack of ongoing refresher or ongoing casework training requirements and said there are ongoing efforts to not only offer training, but also to grow and improve it.

DHHS also said it has reviewed reports from the ombudsman with regards to investigations and placement decisions. Those reports are being used to inform best practices, but the department also has struggled with a high caseload and the rollout of new tools and directives at the same time. In addition, there are outside factors such as the court process, that can impact investigations and placement decisions, the report said.

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