DHHS lays out new efforts to reduce child deaths, abuse in Maine

Published: Mar. 3, 2023 at 10:58 AM EST
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AUGUSTA, Maine (WMTW) - As pressure grows for Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services to do more to prevent child abuse and neglect — the agency is taking a proactive approach.

Thursday, department leaders laid out new efforts to reduce the number of child deaths in Maine.

“This is work that will never end,” DHHS Director Jeanne Lambrew said Thursday. “Helping us to go to the front of the system to figure out how we prevent child maltreatment in the first place is probably the most important thing we can do.”

In January, the 20th annual child welfare services ombudsman report detailed findings of “substantial issues” in dozens of cases.

The Ombudman’s report recommended the following:

- Frontline staff’s experiences and opinions should be given greater weight in improving policies and practices

- DHHS and the OCFS should broaden the use of ‘safety science’ to better implement recommendations from external review processes

- Staff training should align with national best practices

- The decision to remove a child from an unsafe home should not be hindered by consideration for the overall number of children in state custody, but rather that the decision to remove a child or reunite a family should rest on specific circumstances

The report also stressed the clear need for more mental health and substance use services for all Mainers, since a lack of services can so heavily impact a child’s safety.

The report comes amid years of intense scrutiny of the department, including several high-profile deaths in the last few years.

“We knew in 2019 that we had challenges with our children’s behavioral health system, and they only got worse with the pandemic,” Lambrew said.

Since then, the Office of Child and Family Services partnered with Casey Family Programs to map their programs and strategies to figure out what areas needed improvement.

As a result, Maine DHHS and child abuse prevention advocates say they are improving oversight systems, filling in service gaps, and ensuring kids have a place to go.

They are also implementing a more structured system of at-home visitations.

“Having a trained expert go meet with a young parent to give them the information, the tools, the numbers. So, if they need help, they know how to find it,” Lambrew said.

These efforts are meant to build on the federal Family First Prevention Act, which Lambrew said is aimed at getting to those families just before they need child protective services.

Now, Gov. Janet Mills is proposing additional investment in child welfare, including $15 million for foster care and adoption assistance and incentives.

In her State of the Budget address in early February, Mills also touted the new unit created within the OFCS to respond to emergency reports of suspected abuse or neglect on a 24/7 basis.

To report child abuse or neglect, call 1-800-452-1999, or click here.