AUGUSTA, Maine — For the second day, Senator Bill Diamond put boot leather to pavement, hoping it will bring change to a system he said urgently needs it.
Diamond said the Maine DHHS child welfare system, run by the Office of Child and Family Services, has been suffering from serious internal problems for years and has resisted efforts to make needed fixes. Those shortcomings, he said, have hurt the agency’s ability to stop child abuse deaths, even in some cases where the OCFS was already involved with the child and family.
"You’ve got 143 deaths of children in state care since 2007,” Diamond said. “Many homicides, many unknown.”
Most recent were three deaths of children in June, all still under investigation. At least one was a child with whom DHHS was already involved. Those tragedies follow two highly publicized cases in late 2017 and early 2018: the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy.
Diamond, who said he has been concerned about problems in the state system since the death of Logan Marr in 2001, took a personal interest in both the Chick and Kennedy killings, studying the records, pushing for the state's OPEGA government watchdog agency to investigate the system, and attending the trials of the parents and caregiver accused in the girls’ deaths. All three of those adults were convicted of murder.
Diamond has repeatedly called for reform to ensure DHHS intervenes sooner to take children out of dangerous homes. He said the need for that reform hasn’t changed, despite repeated assurances from multiple DHHS leaders that problems are being addressed.
"I’m not at all relieved that they’re telling us they have a system now that’s better because it isn’t. It's getting worse, and they said the same thing, every commissioner, since 2001."
This week, Diamond led a walk to draw attention to the issue, walking and sometimes riding from Old Town to Brewer, cities where two of the June deaths occurred, and on to Stockton Spring, where two other children died from abuse in 2018 and 2021.
The goal, he said, has been to generate more attention to the problem.
“What we’re hoping is that because of the intensity we are seeing, and the walk is helping with that, I think that will bring legislators to being more willing to listen this time.”
In this year’s Legislative session, Diamond tried to pass a bill to take the OCFS out of the Department of Health and Human Services and make it a stand-alone state agency, and therefore more easily open to Legislative scrutiny. His bill passed the state Senate but failed in the House, and was opposed by the Mills administration.
Maine DHHS said it has made many changed in the child welfare system, including adding 70 more staff since 2018, and improvements in training and supervision.
“We care deeply about child safety and wellbeing and are working to do all we can to learn from the recent child deaths and improve our approach to child welfare,” DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said in a written statement to NEWS CENTER Maine.
“The death of a child is a tragic loss – for that child’s future, their family, their community, and our state. That’s why we’re partnering with the national experts at Casey Family Programs to evaluate Department policies and practices to support child and family safety as we continue our broader work to improve the child welfare system, along with the Legislature and many other stakeholders.
The DHHS Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) engaged in a comprehensive system-wide assessment that has informed improvement efforts over the last few years.
DHHS also recently announced it will receive additional annual federal funding for child welfare programs under the Family First program.
Diamond said the Casey investigation of OCFS is a good thing but also said much more is needed. The Legislature’s OPEGA investigation, he says will be significant, and on the walk, several other lawmakers of both parties indicated they share his concern about the issue.
Diamond said he will continue to push for major change during the winter session of the Legislature, his final year.
“This is … my last chance after 20 years to hopefully make an impact to hopefully make that system work better than it does now.”