AUGUSTA — Senator Chip Curry, D-Belfast, introduced Thursday a bill to improve Maine’s child welfare system.
LD 1755, “An Act To Enhance the Child Welfare Ombudsman Program” was the subject of a public hearing before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
LD 1755 would make multiple changes to the Child Welfare Ombudsman Program, which serves as a watchdog for state child welfare services under the Department of Health and Human Services.
Those changes include requiring the Ombudsman to be appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Legislature, requiring the Ombudsman to make budget recommendations, requiring the program to provide services directly to families and ensure the rights and safety of children and their families. The bill also requires DHHS to inform the Ombudsman of any statewide policy or practice changes in child welfare before they take effect.
“Protecting children is the most important role we have as a state. It is our job, our duty, to provide oversight of the State’s efforts to protect children,” said Sen. Curry. “One of the few independent sources of information we have had into the situation within Child Protective Services is from Maine’s Child Welfare Ombudsman. But the Ombudsman’s office is under-staffed and contracted by the state on a year-to-year basis. This bill aims to increase the capacity and independence of the Child Welfare Ombudsman Program. In doing so, we strengthen the Legislature’s ability to provide effective and ongoing oversight. We do not need to feel powerless. We can take steps that strengthen our child protective services and increase our ability to provide effective and timely oversight to this central function of state government.”
The bill also would include the Ombudsman as a member of the child death and serious injury review panel established by the Department of Health and Human Services and requires that the panel, beginning Jan. 1, 2023, and every two years thereafter, submit a report on the panel’s recommendations to the joint standing committee having jurisdiction over health and human services matters.
In 2021, 708 inquiries were made 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 this 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 most long-serving members of the Board of Directors of the Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman had 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 1755 faces further action in committee.