Jeff Timberlake

November was a tough month for Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services.

For years, the Legislature’s bipartisan Government Oversight Committee, of which I am a member, has been investigating DHHS and its Office of Child and Family Services division.

The deaths of several children within weeks of each other in the summer of 2021 raised alarm bells when it was discovered they had some involvement with the agency. It was obvious that something was wrong within the department.

We’ve had the chance to hear directly from many people who have dealt with OCFS. More recently, we heard from OCFS employees themselves who painted an alarming picture of what was occurring inside the agency. The facts uncovered thus far point to systemic failures of both processes and leadership.

The tempo of GOC’s work notched up quite a bit the past few months. When we met in October, we focused on call wait times and abandonment rates that even has the federal government concerned. DHHS admitted earlier this year that call wait times were approaching two hours just to speak with an eligibility specialist.

In an August letter from the Center for Medicaid Services to DHHS, CMS said it is concerned that DHHS operations “are impeding equitable access to assistance” for Maine’s citizens seeking Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program coverage. It’s pretty bad when the federal agency overseeing our nation’s Medicaid system says DHHS has serious issues.


We then learned in October that DHHS had an opportunity to intervene in the case of Makinzlee Handrahan, a 3-year-old toddler from Edgecomb who died almost a year ago on Christmas Day. According to a court affidavit filed in the case charging her mother’s boyfriend with her murder, daycare workers watching Makinzlee noticed she had bruising and scrapes months before her death.

The daycare workers did their duty as mandatory reporters in requesting an OCFS investigation. The agency did; but again it clearly missed something — the girl was dead just two months later.

During our GOC meeting on Nov. 8, we heard directly from frontline employees. One individual described working “within a broken system” and said caseworkers had too many roles across too many cases. A retiree who returned to OCFS to help said caseworkers were being “reviewed to death.” Others portrayed an environment of forced labor and intimidation, even calling one office in particular a “war zone.”

When we reviewed the circumstances regarding the death of Jaden Harding on Nov. 15, it was more of the same. Peter Schleck, the director for our Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, told GOC members there were “errors on top of errors” that are still unaddressed to this day. He effectively laid out a series of missteps that occurred with Jaden’s family before he even took his first breath of life.

Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi, who has been critical of OCFS and appeared in front of GOC on Nov. 29, backed up that fact. Her office has reviewed hundreds of cases the past three years and found problems with at least half of them. Even the agency itself said it was only getting it right half the time regarding identifying risk in a report issued in October.

Mark Moran, the chair of Maine’s Child Death and Serious Injury Review Panel, also supported that assessment. He said the Harding case mirrored others the panel has reviewed, and issues with OCFS investigations have “been an ongoing problem for many years.”


The recent resignation of the agency’s head, Dr. Todd Landry, is just the latest chapter in this otherwise tragic story. Regardless of why he resigned, I wish him well. Still, this may be the opportunity for us to effect serious change — I’ve been saying for years that DHHS as a whole is too large and unaccountable to Maine’s people. OCFS needs to be separated from DHHS.

We’re still in the process of learning why DHHS and OCFS are both failing and their cultures are so dysfunctional. As each week goes by, we’re getting closer and closer; but we must get it right.

That’s because this is an agency that must get it right. If it doesn’t, children die.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake represents District 17, which includes communities in Androscoggin and Kennebec counties. He is the Senate Republican lead for the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, and a member of the Government Oversight Committee.

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