AUGUSTA, Maine — On a morning when the gusting wind snatched words out of the air, critics of the Maine Department of Health and Human Service’s child protective system called for change and asked to be part of it.
“We’re done with the way things are being run. We’re done being quiet,” Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said. He's been advocating for years for change in the system.
“We’re asking for an end to a culture built on resistance, denial, and excuses. We want to help. We want to make the system better,” the senator said.
Diamond stood with fellow lawmakers, foster parents, child care workers, and family members of children who have died, for what he said was the first such rally in more than 20 years.
The group stood in front of the Maine State House, and behind a collection of 178 pairs of shoes. Diamond and others said that since 2007, 178 Maine children have died, and all those children had some kind of involvement with DHHS.
The vast majority, Diamond said, died of natural causes or accidents, and not from child abuse. But there have been at least a half-dozen children who have died from abuse since 2017.
During those years, legislators have been consistently trying to find out if there are systemic problems within DHHS that have led to those deaths, but the answers are elusive.
Two administrations and two Legislatures have increased staff and budgets and made other changes to address shortages in the system, but as recently as 2021, there were four deaths of children that have been declared or are potentially homicides.
“The question before us is why,” Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said. He is a member of the Government Oversight Committee that is investigating the problems.
He added, “This is not a partisan question, not an issue of who to blame. This is a life and death issue affecting our precious children and needs to be addressed immediately.”
Joining the legislator were foster parents who said they and their foster children have been treated badly by the system. That included Melanie Blair, a foster parent who said her large family of foster and birth children was devastated in December 2021 when DHHS workers and police suddenly took the foster children away, based, she said, on a false complaint against the family.
“We are a vested foster family with a good relationship. Instead, the lives of 13 people in our home were disrupted in an unnecessary and traumatic way,” Blair said.
Foster parent Jamie Gibson talked about having to take foster children back to abusive homes because of what she said is a DHHS policy on the reunification of families.
“It is impossible to understand and appreciate the heartache until you personally are responsible for telling a child they must return to their parents, the ones they fear," Gibson said.
Diamond said the foster parents and others want to be able to work with DHHS to come up with improvements to the system and to do so without worry of possible retaliation.
DHHS said its workers do not retaliate against those who raise complaints, but Timberlake said a number of foster parents worry about that.
The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee continues to investigate problems and issues within DHHS, in search of ways to fix what Diamond calls a “broken system.”
DHHS, however, defended that system and said it has been focused on a number of improvements over the last two years.
A written statement from the agency made that clear, reading in part:
“There is no higher goal for the Department of Health and Human Services than protecting the lives and wellbeing of Maine children. From our child welfare caseworkers on the front lines to the department’s leadership, we are committed to doing everything we can to keep children safe. We welcome all who join us in pursuit of facts and solutions, including legislators, the Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman, advocates, child care providers, families, and others devoted to improving the lives of Maine children."
That statement continued: “We share the sense of urgency for further changes in the child welfare system. We also recognize, as the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) has underscored, that top-down, dramatic change that results in 'policy whiplash' without communication and buy-in from those on the front lines will be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. As Reps. Michele Meyer and Michael Brennan stated in their recent Portland Press Herald op-ed, 'All told, the Legislature, engaging and working with DHHS and the Mills administration, has plotted a clear course toward improvement. We have funded and enacted the tools to make it happen. The focus now must be on urgent implementation and tracking ongoing process — not more talk and task forces.”
In addition to citing changes that have been made and the latest proposals passed by the Legislature, the DHHS statement also referred to the number of child deaths.
“We must also remember the children who died last year as a result of tragic accidents and natural causes, who represent the vast majority of the 29 child deaths reported to the Department in 2021. The Department chose more than a year ago to begin publicly and consistently releasing data on child deaths where abuse or neglect could have occurred, regardless of any prior child welfare history, as part of our commitment to transparency. We remain equally committed to protecting privacy for families who are grieving and preserving justice for children who have been victimized by following the State and Federal confidentiality laws.”
The op-ed item mentioned by DHHS was written by Rep. Michelle Meyer, co-chair of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, and Rep. Michael Brennan, a member of that committee.
It took other Legislatiors to task for some of their comments and praised the work of DHHS, the Legislature, and Gov. Janet Mills.
That article reads, in part:
“The death of any child is a tragedy for their loved ones, communities, and our state as a whole. Child safety is everyone’s priority, and it is our duty as legislators to tackle the underlying causes of child abuse and neglect head-on. The circumstances that result in children being harmed require an understanding of the facts and a commitment to solutions that are based in reality.
That’s why we were discouraged to see some of our legislative colleagues misstate important information about the tragic deaths of children last year. The reality is that none of the four children who died last May and June was in state custody. Two, not 25, of last year’s fatalities, had findings of abuse or neglect and a minority had open cases with the state. We know this because, for the first time and in the interest of transparency, the Department of Health and Human Services voluntarily posted these data. If you can’t get the facts right, you can’t get the policy right.”
The co-chair of the Government Oversight Committee, Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, said the committee raised questions for more than three hours on Wednesday with staff members from DHHS, and that process will continue at next month's meeting. Stover said all on the bipartisan committee are committed to finding the core reasons for any problems or shortcomings within the child protective system. The committee has already decided to continue working through the summer and fall, as needed, to find the answers, she said.