The Maine Department of Health and Human Services offices on State Street in Augusta.

In most of the 10 months since 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy was abused to death allegedly at the hands of her mother and stepfather, the number of assessments state-contracted caseworkers conducted into potentially at-risk families nearly doubled.

The resulting sharp uptick, which remained high through the end of last year — 850 assessments in December 2018 compared with 460 in December 2017— occurred because, suddenly, “there were fears things were being missed,” Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi told the legislative Committee on Health and Human Services last week in Augusta.

Though this doesn’t mean more instances of abuse were discovered, it does represent a more exhaustive effort on the part of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services — embattled and in need of substantive reforms, experts found last year — after the deaths of Kennedy in March and 4-year-old Kendall Chick in December 2017.

And while it’s still too early to gauge whether there’s been observable progress since the passage of a series of emergency laws in response to those deaths, “Child welfare services is still in a bit of a crisis right now,” Alberi said.

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That crisis has in part spurred the proposal of two bills in the 129th Legislature from Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, and Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, that call for more funding and increased staffing in the nonpartisan ombudsman’s office.

Maine’s child welfare ombudsman program was founded in 2001 after 5-year-old Logan Marr was killed by her foster mother. The office — Alberi and a part-time associate ombudsman Richard Totten — acts as an omniscient third-party watchdog with access to all Department of Health and Human Services’ otherwise confidential records. Its role is nonpartisan oversight, which often means pointing out department shortcomings and recommending better practices.

The office lacks enforcement authority.

The program currently runs on a two-year contract through the executive branch — it expires in July with an option to renew — and operates with $121,405 a year, according to the governor’s office.

Though neither bill’s language has been drafted, it’s likely that doubling the program’s funding will be proposed. This would allow Alberi to fill at least another full-time and part-time position, she said.

The office is also a point of contact for caseworkers and anyone with questions about DHHS or the vast network of child welfare agencies across Maine. The office connects the public with resources — where to go, for example, if you’re a parent and your kids have been taken into state custody — and provides a mechanism for anyone needing to report an incident of potential abuse, child endangerment or complaint about DHHS or its contracted caseworkers.

[Watchdog faults DHHS for ‘poor job performance’ in case of Maine child’s death]

The ombudsman also reviews hundreds of confidential case records each year in order to identify weaknesses or problems within the state’s child welfare system — a role that Alberi called “invaluable.”

Part of the impetus behind at least Mastraccio’s bill derives from her realization last year, after the high-profile deaths, that many lawmakers “were not even aware” there was a child welfare ombudsman, she said.

In her annual 20-page report released Dec. 31, Alberi said her department had been “underutilized.” Better staffing and resources would “strengthen the [child welfare] system as a whole,” but “without the time to really advocate for the needed changes, [her office] is not as effective as it could be.”

That ability to “dig through” a case and determine how it is best handled is something caseworkers do not often have time to do, a DHHS caseworker who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of professional reprisal said Wednesday.

“That service is needed,” she said. “If there’s something wrong, let’s shed light on it and fix it.”

In her 2018 report, Alberi found “significant issues” with DHHS’ and the Office of Child and Family Services’ handling of the family reunification process. This means at-risk families whose children were temporarily placed in state custody were too quickly reunited before their living situation was deemed safe, or children were kept in state custody longer than they needed to be.

[Maine lawmakers add $21 million to child protective services system]

In one incident described vaguely in Alberi’s report, DHHS knowingly closed a child endangerment case involving more than one child, despite there being “clear evidence” that the children faced continued danger after they were able to return home.

More program staff would allow Alberi’s office time to follow up with cases after they’re closed. “At this point, I just don’t have time to stay with them,” she said.

While many of the department’s “problems predate” the deaths of Kennedy and Chick, Alberi hopes there’s still enough public and legislative momentum behind Bellows’ and Mastraccio’s bills to garner bipartisan support

Claire Berkowitz, executive director of Maine Children’s Alliance, said the ombudsman’s office performs a crucial function, one that the state should be eager to support.

“Child protection is of the utmost importance in our state,” she said. Without full oversight flex of the ombudsman, there’s no way to “make sure that system is running as it should be.”