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Maine DHHS says federal funds will help reduce child abuse; critics unsure

DHHS says the new funding for the Family First services should begin in October.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is hoping a new federal program will help improve services to prevent child abuse. The department announced that Maine is one of the first fifteen states to have a Family First grant approved by Washington -- two years after the program was passed by Congress. It will bring $2.4 million per year in federal funds for specific child welfare services. 

Dr. Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, said Tuesday the money will be used to provide a range of services to help families where there is risk the child could be removed from the home. 

“We determine, yes, the child is at imminent risk of coming into state care but what the family really needs are certain specific service to ameliorate that risk,” said Landry.

He said a hypothetical case could involve a family needing parenting training and home visits, in which case the new program would pay for DHHS to have contracted staffers go into the home to do the training and work with the family.

“We would monitor to make sure services are provided and we would continue to monitor how services are being delivered and make sure the child is safe while services are being delivered,” he said.

Landry said if the problems were too severe, the state could still have the child removed to a foster home.

Making those decisions has been one of the faults cited by the state’s child welfare ombudsman in recent criticism of DHHS handling of such cases, most recently at a meeting of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee. That meeting was called to look into three child abuse deaths in June, and determine if the DHHS staff and handling of such cases needs to be overhauled.

The committee unanimously voted to have the OPEGA government watchdog office investigate the child welfare system to see where the flaws are and how to correct them, to prevent future deaths.

Landry said Tuesday the OCFS staff will benefit from the new federal funds and be able to handle some cases better.

“I certainly believe these services will enable staff and caseworkers to more accurately determine if a child should stay in the home with services or if the child needs to come into the care and custody of the department," he said.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, has been one of the sharpest critics of the DHHS child welfare programs. He said Tuesday he hopes the new services help, but said the biggest problem is the “overall culture” inside the department, when it comes to handling the child welfare cases. Diamond said that culture and some of the practices need to change.

He tried to get the Legislature to split off the Office of Child and Family Services into a separate state agency, independent of DHHS, but was unable to get full Legislative support.

However, the issue is far from settled. Lawmakers on that Government Oversight Committee made it clear earlier in the summer they are unhappy with continuing problems in the child welfare system, and will be ready to push for changes this winter, depending on the results of the OPEGA investigation.

At the same time that probe is underway, the nationally-known Casey Family Programs organization is conducting its own review of the child welfare services in Maine, at the request of DHHS. Some of their information is reportedly being shared with OPEGA. The Casey analysis and conclusions will be submitted to DHHS, and are expected around the end of October. 

The OPEGA initial report will be delivered to the Government Oversight Committee by the beginning of January.

DHHS says the new funding for the Family First services should begin in October.