The federal government has approved a child welfare reform plan from the Mills administration that aims to expand prevention and treatment services available to families in order to keep children out of foster care.

Maine was the first state in New England to submit and to receive federal approval of a five-year plan to align Maine’s child welfare programs with the Family First Prevention Services Act.

Passed by Congress in 2018, the Family First Prevention Services Act aims to reduce the number of children entering foster care by providing at-risk parents and families with support services such as mental health counseling, substance use treatment and in-home parental skills counseling. The Family First Act also requires participating states to better support children who end up with “relative caregivers” and to improve standards for residential programs for children requiring treatment for emotional or behavioral issues.

According to the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, the federal approval means Maine will receive $2.4 million annually from the federal government for “evidence-based services proven to keep children safe while preventing the need for them to enter state custody.”

“All children should grow up in safe, stable and nurturing families,” Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement. “The federal Family First Act represents an historic opportunity achieve this vision by giving child welfare systems the tools and ongoing funding they need to prevent abuse and neglect and improve the lives of children and families who can remain safely together with the appropriate support.”

Enactment of the federal law in 2018 coincided with a period of intense scrutiny of Maine’s child welfare system in response to the high-profile deaths of 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs. Subsequent investigations faulted DHHS for failing to frequently check on the children or for failing to fully investigate numerous complaints and warning signs.

DHHS responded by hiring dozens of additional caseworkers and supervisors, increasing training, bolstering some family-support programs and making other changes aimed at improving how the state handles child abuse reports.

But two consecutive annual reports from Maine’s independent, child welfare ombudsman found that DHHS continues to struggle with decisions about when children should be removed from homes and when they can be safely reunited with parents. Ombudsman Christine Alberi credited DHHS with making progress on some reforms, but for her February 2021 report, she highlighted issues in 38 of the 90 child welfare cases that she reviewed.

More than 3 ½ years after the deaths of Chick and Kennedy, the Maine Office of Child and Family Services within DHHS is once again in the spotlight – internally, from legislators and from the public – following a spate of child deaths. Four parents are currently facing murder or manslaughter charges stemming from four child deaths in Maine since June.

DHHS is conducting an internal review of the Office of Child and Family Services in response to the deaths and brought a national child welfare organization, Casey Family Programs, to assist with the investigation. Additionally, lawmakers have directed an independent watchdog agency to conduct its own investigation of Maine’s child protective services — the second in three years undertaken by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

Department officials suggested that the reforms being implemented following the earlier investigations will dovetail nicely with the prevention and early intervention emphasis of the Family First program.

“Maine’s Family First Plan will propel our ongoing improvements to the child welfare system to ensure parents and families have the support they need,” Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, said in a statement. “Under this plan, we will further improve our programs and expand prevention services with the goal of safe, stable, happy, and healthy children and families in Maine.”

In the state’s Family First plan filed with the federal government, DHHS pointed out that the number of children who were in state custody/foster care rose from 1,722 in September 2017 to 2,360 children in September 2020.

“Many factors have contributed to the number of children in foster care, but parental substance use has continued to be a significant contributing factor for removal of children from the home over the past several years,” the plan states.

In fiscal year 2019, substance use by parents was a factor in 51 percent of all child welfare removals and 20 percent of all infants taken into state custody were either born addicted to drugs or were exposed as a newborn. The most common substances identified by caseworkers were alcohol and heroin, according to the report.

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