Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services says it is taking a series of steps in response to a consultant’s report last week that outlined broad recommendations for improving the state’s long beleaguered child protective system.

In a news release Tuesday, DHHS said it already has begun implementing some of the recommendations from Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based nonprofit and leader in child welfare, including updating policies for after-hours staffing and strengthening lines of communication between agencies that assist families where abuse or neglect is found. The Casey report found that complex cases sometimes were being handed to less experienced after-hours staff and that more coordination is needed with hospitals and law enforcement, among other things.

The department also is working to identify other areas of improvement, including additional recommendations by Casey and other ideas shared from staff members, in an effort to improve a system that has been under intense scrutiny for many years.

“We share in the commitment of all Maine people to protect the health and well-being of children,” DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a statement. “These actions, supported by the expert and thorough review of Casey Family Programs, strengthen collaboration among partners who can help keep children safe and advance our work to improve the child welfare system now and over the long term.”

DHHS announced in June that it had asked Casey to conduct a review following a series of child deaths. Five children, all 4 years old or younger, died from accidents or serious injuries in June. In three cases, caregivers have been charged with manslaughter or murder. In at least one case, child protective caseworkers were working with the family.

LAWMAKER DISAPPOINTED

Casey’s 29-page report, released last week, highlighted persistent staffing challenges that worsened during the pandemic and poor communication between families and other stakeholders as the biggest deficiencies. The report did not, however, go into detail about specific failures related to the spate of deaths that prompted the state to ask for help, focusing instead on systemic issues, many of which have been brought up before.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who has long advocated for reforms to Maine’s child protective system, said Casey’s report was disappointing.

“These recommendations appear to take a soft approach to urgent, severe issues,” he said in a statement. Diamond drafted a bill this year that sought to create a separate Office of Child and Family Services outside the massive DHHS umbrella, but it failed to gain enough votes for passage.

In addition to the review by Casey Family Programs, the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability has launched its investigation into child welfare practices in Maine. That agency will present initial findings later this year, but the full report won’t be completed until early next year.

The same office conducted a review in 2018 following the high-profile deaths of Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick, which led to some reforms but hasn’t solved all of the problems.

Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, was less critical than Diamond, but said more work is needed beyond the recommendations put forth by Casey.

“The information that Casey Family Programs provided us with is a critical piece of this puzzle,” Meyer said in a statement late last week. “Between their report, OPEGA’s investigation, the department’s internal review and the input from the public during legislative hearings, I am confident our committee will have the tools it needs to make effective policy changes that protect the safety and wellness of Maine’s children and families.”

SHARING INFORMATION

In DHHS’ release Tuesday, it said staff has begun working with hospitals and law enforcement to improve timely sharing of information “to support child welfare staff in making decisions regarding the safety of children who are in the care of their parents or guardians.”

The department also hopes to finalize by next month, “an updated policy for family team meetings that clarifies guidance to child welfare staff on criteria for convening, facilitating and documenting the meetings to best support child safety.”

Even before it asked Casey to evaluate its system, DHHS had been working on reforms to child welfare. In 2019, shortly after Gov. Janet Mills took office, the department adopted a Child & Family Services Strategic Plan that included more training for staff and better focus on permanency for children removed from homes. Since that plan was presented, 60 staff members have been hired.

More recently, Maine received approval from federal officials to implement its Family First Prevention Services Act, which expands prevention services to help keep children and families healthy and safe, and prevent the need for children to come into state custody.

The DHHS news release also highlighted a more collaborative relationship with the Child Welfare Ombudsman, an independent office that acts as a watchdog over the Office of Child and Family Services. This summer, two board members resigned in protest after they said the ombudsman’s reports were not being taken seriously.

DHHS has since begun bringing the ombudsman in sooner when reviewing child fatalities.

Many of the ongoing problems with the child protective system date back years or even decades. The state has a long history of making reforms, often in response to specific tragedies, but it has never truly overhauled the system. In recent years, the prolonged opioid crisis and now the coronavirus pandemic have increased stress on many families, which has led to increased reports of abuse or neglect. Cuts to social services during the previous administration of Gov. Paul LePage also played a role.

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