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Protecting the children: Part 1

(WABI)
Published: Feb. 25, 2020 at 3:59 PM EST
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Keeping children safe.

That's the job of the state's child welfare system.

But the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has come under extreme scrutiny in recent years after the deaths of two little girls.

A report recently released sheds light on some of the issues within the department.

Child Welfare Ombudsman, Christine Alberi reviewed more than 100 cases handled by DHHS between October 2018 and September 2019.

In her annual report, Alberi says she found major issues with nearly 40 percent of the cases she examined.

She says, "I think it's too high which is part of the problem. There's no system that is ever going to be perfect, but I think we can certainly do better."

The annual report comes after the murders of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs in 2018 and 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset in 2017.

Both girls died of severe abuse at the hands of their parents or caretakers.

Investigations faulted DHHS as well as police for failing to intervene despite numerous complaints and warning signs.

Alberi says, "We have found, and this has sort of been the ongoing issue for many years now, that there are still issues with consistency in initial safety assessments. So, when child welfare receives that call that a child is unsafe and the child welfare worker has to go out and investigate, we found that there have been some inconsistencies in those types of investigations leaving kids unsafe.”

The report reveals that in one case, DHHS failed to conduct a follow-up assessment after initial interviews about suspected abuse.

The assessment wasn't completed until "five months later when one of the parents severely injured one of the children, an infant, causing life threatening and life-long injuries."

Alberi says, "I think part of it is that the department was sometimes not investigating cases in the past that should have been maybe taken more seriously."

Reunification was listed as another issue.

She says, "Obviously the goal is to make sure that we can get as many families back together as possible. That decision at the end of the case whether or not the child is going to be safe going forward emotionally and physically back with their parents is one of the hardest decisions to make, and that's one of the other areas where we've seen some inconsistencies in practice."

In one case, the report shows parents with a history of substance use disorder lost custody of a newborn because a parent had accidentally killed another child by rolling onto the infant during an unsafe sleep incident.

The report states, "The parents continued to exhibit concerning behaviors, but without clear reason, visits started in the home with the parents and supervision was quickly reduced."

The ombudsman also expressed concern that DHHS does not take children's absence from school as seriously as it should.

The report says, "The existence of truancy, or educational negelect, alone constitutes jeopardy under the statute and is considered "serious abuse or neglect."

But Alberi says many child welfare workers and supervisors are still going above and beyond to protect children.

"There are so many child welfare workers and supervisors who show unbelievable amounts of compassion. They are working long hours, they are sitting in hospitals with kids, sitting in hotel rooms with kids, They are in the most difficult of circumstances that most people can't even imagine."

Alberi tells says that despite these issues, the child welfare program has improved over the past two years, making significant changes.

TV Five sat down with the Director of Child and Family Services for DHHS to talk about what changes have been made and if they will truly keep kids safe.

Hear what he had to say in part two of this special report.

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