AUGUSTA — Maine’s child protection system showed no signs of improvement in the state’s latest annual review, with staff struggling to properly assess the safety of children when investigating reports of abuse and neglect, and when trying to reunify children with their parents, the child welfare ombudsman said.

“Unfortunately, this year’s review of case-specific reports continues to show a decline in child welfare practice,” Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi wrote in the report.

The 2023 annual report will be presented Friday as lawmakers continue their investigation into a series of child deaths and begin airing recommendations to improve workplace conditions that are driving an exodus of caseworkers.

“Tomorrow’s conversation will be robust and thoughtful,” Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, said Thursday. Fay co-chairs the Government Oversight Committee, which has led the two-year inquiry and plans to meet Friday to discuss possible fixes. “My hope for the committee is that we will continue to work together as we have up to this point and come up with a work product that is meaningful and helps protect children.”

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Lisa Keim, of Dixfield, the lead Republican on the committee, did not respond to a request for an interview but is sponsoring an emergency resolve directing the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to develop a pilot program to recruit and employ more child protective case aides. The bill, which has bipartisan support from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, Fay and other Democrats, directs the department to target retirees and other people not currently in the workforce and report back to lawmakers.

Some lawmakers have proposed making the Office of Child and Family Services a new standalone agency separate from DHHS, which proponents argue would provide more accountability, and creating an office of inspector general to oversee child welfare. Those bills are scheduled for a public hearing before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services committee on Thursday.


Child safety advocates have called for more funding to support services needed to keep children safe and in their own homes, including addressing poverty, which they say is often mistaken for neglect, and increasing access to mental health, behavioral health and substance use services.

A nonprofit formed by former state Sen. Bill Diamond called, Walk A Mile In Their Shoes, released a report and series of recommendations that includes hiring more – and increasing the pay of – case aides, or legal aides, who help with clerical work and obtain medical, educational and other records.

Lawmakers initially began examining failures in the state’s child welfare system two years ago in response to four 2021 child abuse deaths that occurred within weeks of one another. But the inquiry has broadened over time, resulting in Todd Landry’s resignation in November as director of the Office of Child and Family Services, which oversees child protection, and an acknowledgment of the problems by Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew.

The focus has been largely on caseworkers and the challenges they face – primarily high caseloads because of a lack of staff and rapid turnover. Caseworkers also are responsible for doing their own administrative work, including collecting evidence and filing petitions for court hearings, despite having no legal training.

Caseworkers also have pointed to a lack of community services for children and parents, including services for mental health, behavioral health and substance use.

They are also forced to work overtime shifts to supervise children in hotels and emergency rooms, a situation that is partly the result of a declining number of licensed foster families. Staffing shortages in the Office of Child and Family Services have added to the pressures on foster families, especially those caring for children in state custody who need special services.



Alberi, who is tasked with investigating public complaints about specific cases, said in her annual report that 49 of the 82 cases she reviewed in the most recent fiscal year had “substantial issues.” Those cases, she said, show problems similar to those flagged in previous reports about initial child abuse and neglect allegations, and when reuniting children in state custody with their parents.

“As has been true in previous annual reports, this year shows continued struggles with decision-making around child safety,” she wrote.

In some cases, Alberi said that staff did not gather enough evidence to accurately assess a child’s safety, or did not appropriately assess the evidence it did collect. She said her review found a family’s extensive history with the department was not considered; adult caregivers did not receive background checks; family members were interviewed together, including during domestic violence investigations; and child abuse pediatricians were not consulted about injuries.

“Perhaps more concerning were investigations that gathered enough information to determine that children were unsafe but no safety planning or court action was taken to protect the children,” Alberi said. “These were not close cases, but instances where children were experiencing significant abuse and/or neglect. In many cases a court petition was filed eventually, but only after the children remained unsafe in the home for an unnecessary duration and were subjected to additional instances of abuse and/or neglect.”

The report covers from Oct. 1, 2022, through Sept. 31, 2023.


In a written response to the report, the Office of Child and Family Services said it assigned 9,963 cases, with an average of 2,490 children in state care. The office said it agreed with Alberi’s recommendations 60% of the time, which is similar to the previous year. That includes expanding services to help struggling families.

“There are challenges in obtaining services both within the state of Maine and nationally, regardless of child welfare involvement,” the office said. “Like OCFS, service agencies across the state have been struggling to hire and fill staff vacancies, which has resulted in delays in service initiation for families.”

The office also supported Alberi’s recommendation to consider suggested improvements from outside entities and give “utmost consideration” to the views of caseworkers, who have told lawmakers their input is often ignored by upper management.

“This is a high priority as the department seeks new leadership for the office in 2024,” the agency said. DHHS continues to seek a permanent replacement for Landry.

Alberi said that her report is not a call to break up families unnecessarily.

“This report is not meant as a call to take more children into state custody or reunify fewer children with parents, but to improve child welfare practice so that in each case and for each child the correct decisions can be made,” she said.

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