Advocates want major change within state’s child welfare system

Published: May. 18, 2022 at 5:03 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Maine (WABI) - Child welfare advocates including foster parents rallied outside the State House on Wednesday.

They say they want major change within the state’s child welfare system, starting with transparency and accountability from DHHS.

The rally started with a moment of silence for 178 seconds for the number of children who have died in Maine since 2007.

One hundred seventy-eight pairs of children’s shoes were also placed on the floor outside the State House.

Advocates says the state is failing to protect the children and they want to help.

According to the Office of Child and Family Services, there were 29 deaths which is a record number in the state.

”Children are dying now. And record numbers. We know their names. Marissa, Kendall, Ethan, Logan, Maddox, Haley, Jaden, Carson and so, so many more. We are here to say no more names,” Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham.

“I’m asking the department to work with us and to help us solve his problems because we’re here to help and we want to be part of the solution. We don’t want to just point fingers,” said Melanie Blair, child care advocate.

The group says this is a bipartisan effort to protect the children.

Maine DHHS response to press conference to reform Maine Child protection system:

“There is no higher goal for the Department of Health and Human Services than protecting the lives and wellbeing of Maine children. From our child welfare caseworkers on the front lines to the Department’s leadership, we are committed to doing everything we can to keep children safe. We welcome all who join us in pursuit of facts and solutions, including legislators, the Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman, advocates, child care providers, families and others devoted to improving the lives of Maine children.

We share the sense of urgency for further changes in the child welfare system. We also recognize, as the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) has underscored, that top-down, dramatic change that results in “policy whiplash” without communication and buy-in from those on the front lines will be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. As Reps. Michele Meyer and Michael Brennan stated in their recent Portland Press Herald op-Ed, “All told, the Legislature, engaging and working with DHHS and the Mills administration, has plotted a clear course toward improvement. We have funded and enacted the tools to make it happen. The focus now must be on urgent implementation and tracking ongoing process – not more talk and task forces.”

The 130th session of the Legislature was one of the most meaningful for Maine’s child welfare system. In 2022, it appropriated over $10 million to hire more caseworkers, expand supportive services for families, and strengthen the Office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman – a proposal introduced by the Governor. It enacted at least 10 laws that will directly improve systems to promote the safety of children. And, it invested in systems outside of child welfare that are critical to safety and resiliency like crisis behavioral health and quality child care.

Recent improvements to Child Protective Services build on major changes made in the last three years, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department:

  • Added 16 percent more caseworkers in the last four years – not counting new positions in the recently enacted budget;
  • Overhauled caseworker training;
  • Replaced a decades-old system for case records, improving information sharing and decisions;
  • Added new services for families including for prevention of neglect and abuse;
  • Implemented a new accountability system using Safety Science to create that culture of quality improvement;
  • Recruited 18 percent more resource (foster) families.

The Department – and State’s – work to improve child safety is never done. For example, Maine – like all states – has recently experienced an alarming rise in child drug exposures and is developing options to further protect children from lethal drugs such as fentanyl.

We must also remember the children who died last year as a result of tragic accidents and natural causes, who represent the vast majority of the 29 child deaths reported to the Department in 2021. The Department chose more than a year ago to begin publicly and consistently releasing data on child deaths where abuse or neglect could have occurred, regardless of any prior child welfare history, as part of our commitment to transparency. We remain equally committed to protecting privacy for families who are grieving and preserving justice for children who have been victimized by following the State and Federal confidentiality laws.

We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with the public, the Legislature, and our many partners throughout the State to put Maine children first as this critical work continues.”

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