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Maine lawmakers to keep seeking solution for child protective system concerns

With time running out on the current Legislative session, the committee agreed to keep working through the rest of the year.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee has been working since August 2021 to find answers to what they see as major problems with Maine’s child protective system.   

With time running out on the current Legislative session, the committee agreed Wednesday to keep working through the rest of the year “in a more aggressive way” to find the answers they believe are waiting.

The Government Oversight Committee has been hoping to find out what may have gone wrong with the state’s child protective system that led to four children dying at the hands of families in June 2021.  

At least some of those children were already involved in the Department of Health and Human Services system at the time of their deaths from abuse. 

Multiple studies and reports have pointed out a series of problems in the state system, which is managed by the DHHS Office of Child and Family Services. Those problems include a shortage of staff and supervisors and decision-making problems in the agency, among other items. 

However, despite a continuing investigation by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, government watchdog agency, reports from the Child Welfare Ombudsman, and a state-requested probe by Casey Family Programs, members of the committee said they still have not been able to identify what they believe to be the root causes of those problems.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who has been crusading on the issue for a number of years, said Wednesday he hoped the committee would keep investigating and pushing for answers to change what he says is the “culture” within the agency.

“So, I think that all leads to frustration for many of us, especially government oversight. I know that something has to be done. And we can’t go home, again, another year, and not be doing anything of an aggressive nature to make a difference. There’s a lot of legislation, which is good, but none of it was really to the point it would make a substantial change,” Diamond said.

The Legislature already passed two bills to make changes in the system. The governor asked for the supplemental state budget to include funding for a number of added positions in the agency, including 16 to work nights and weekends, a staffing need identified by some of the studies.

At Wednesday’s meeting, committee members agreed there is more information to be obtained and discussed ways to hear more from people inside the system, including foster parents and DHHS staff.

During a meeting Friday, a foster parent told the committee she feared retribution for speaking out, a topic that raised concerns with several of the committee members. 

That issue was brought up in the Wednesday discussion again, with DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew in attendance. When finally asked at the end of the meeting to respond to questions, Lambrew said no one should be worried about retribution by the department.

“The fact is that is not our policy. We welcome input and criticism because we can’t identify problems and challenges without it,” the commissioner said.

She told the committee her department would work with them and cooperate in any way it can to solve issues, and DHHS itself is continually working to improve the child protective system.

One of the current challenges is filling about 50 vacant positions, not counting any new ones that may be authorized in a budget plan expected to be decided next week.  

Lambrew said she is hopeful that with college graduations about to begin, the agency will be able to fill some of those openings.

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