Committee supports proposals from Claxton, Curry to reform, strengthen child welfare system

Thu, 02/24/2022 - 8:30pm

    AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Health and Humans Services Committee voted Thursday in favor of a bill from Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, to improve Maine’s child welfare system.

    LD 1960, “An Act To Make Changes to the Laws Governing the Child Welfare Services Ombudsman Program,” received bipartisan, unanimous support from members present.

    The committee also included in the bill a key provision and many other elements from a bill sponsored by Sen. Chip Curry, D-Belfast, LD 1755, “An Act To Enhance the Child Welfare Ombudsman Program.”

    “Like so many parents across Maine, I’ve mourned the recent child deaths in our state. As a legislator, it’s been incredibly frustrating to see our child protective services fail to protect so many children,” said. Sen. Curry. “With the passage of these provisions that further empower the ombudsman's office I believe we are taking significant steps to strengthen Maine’s child welfare system. I am grateful for the committee’s strong support of these measures. Though our work certainly isn't done yet, this is an important step forward in protecting all Maine children.”

    “When a child dies, the whole state mourns. When a child dies from a preventable, violent event, the state must step in to ensure it never happens again,” said Sen. Claxton, who serves as chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. “Maine lawmakers rose to action, to help protect our kids. I’m glad that we’re moving forward with these much-needed reforms.”

    LD 1960 would make a variety of changes to strengthen the Child Welfare Services Ombudsman’s Program, including improved staffing, funding and employment benefits; ensuring the program can provide input and recommendations to the Department of Health and Human Services as well as the Legislature; and allowing the program to provide direct support to people and families involved with the state’s child welfare services.

    The bill also would require DHHS to give advance notice to the ombudsman of any policy changes affecting child welfare services, and to notify the ombudsman of certain child deaths.

    The key provision added to LD 1960 from LD 1755 would include the ombudsman as a member of the child death and serious injury review panel, to ensure the program can provide more informed and thorough oversight of child welfare services.

    In 2021, 708 inquiries were reported to the Ombudsman Program, which is an increase of 91 from 2020, and 66 percent of those were for children 8 years old or younger. During 2021, the Ombudsman opened 95 cases, and of those 84 were closed by the end of 2021. Out of the 84 cases closed that year, 42 had substantial issues.

    Four Maine children, all younger than four years old, died between May 31 and June 20, 2021. This includes three-year-old Maddox Williams of Stockton Springs, who passed away after being brought to the hospital by his mother and grandmother. His mother, Jessica Williams, has been charged with murder.

    Reporting has described Maddox’s injuries as well as shock by neighbors that he was left in his mother’s care. OCFS involvement has not been made public. This comes less than three years after the death of Marissa Kennedy, also of Stockton Springs, who died from abuse and neglect in her family home after 25 reports from school employees, neighbors, and medical professionals with concerns for her wellbeing.

    In July 2021, two long-serving members of the Board of Directors of the Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman resigned their positions. Their resignation letter spelled out the reason for their resignations as a frustration in the lack of needed reform in Maine’s child welfare systems, leaving children at risk of harm and abuse.

    In its 2020 annual report, the Ombudsman’s office details how the Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) continues to struggle to fully protect Maine children in two key areas. The Ombudsman found that OCFS struggles with determining the safety of a child in the home during initial investigations. The Office also struggles to make informed decisions about if it is safe to reunify the children with his or her parents.

    LD 1960 now faces votes before the Senate and House.