Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, addresses the student body at Houlton Middle-High School in this file photo. He said Tuesday that judges are dealing with more child welfare cases after a state policy shift. Credit: Joseph Cyr | Houlton Pioneer Times

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Maine lawmaker said Tuesday that judges are dealing with more child welfare cases after the state ended a practice of placing children with other family members during investigations, illustrating a challenge the state faces in overhauling its system.

Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, said Tuesday during a meeting of the Legislature’s watchdog committee that district court judges are being “overloaded” with child protection cases more than a year after the Department of Health and Human Services began making procedural changes after the high-profile deaths of Marissa Kennedy in 2018 and Kendall Chick in 2017.

A government watchdog agency reported earlier this year that the state’s Office of Child and Family Services caseworkers were overburdened and burned out. Since then, most of the focus in Augusta has been on addressing the challenges facing caseworkers.

Gov. Janet Mills included $2.8 million to hire more 62 new staff members, the majority of which would be new caseworkers. Two weeks ago, OCFS director Todd Landry reported the department will need about 33 more as the number of children in the state’s custody increases.

Addressing health and safety issues was one of the state’s biggest priorities, said Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee. But she said it was becoming more apparent that the problems plaguing the child welfare system are “much bigger” and “much more in-depth.”

One of the changes made by DHHS was to stop the use of out of home “safety plans,” a practice where a child would be placed with a non-custodial family member while DHHS investigated their case. Those placements were often made without court oversight or proper vetting by caseworkers, Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi said Tuesday.

In many cases, she said the safety plans would drag on for months, often without proper caseworker oversight. But as a result of the change, Alberi said more children are ending up in the state’s custody, which can only happen with a judge’s approval. She said she agreed with the change, but said DHHS communication on internal practices could be better.

It could be part of why the number of children placed in DHHS state custody has increased 17 percent from 1,861 in October 2018 to 2,180 this month, according to DHHS data. Carpenter, who was Maine’s attorney general from 1991 to 1995, said he has heard from district court judges who are spending 50 percent of their time on child protective cases.

Kendall Chick was placed with her grandfather, Stephen Hood, three years before Hood’s fiancee, Shawna Gatto, killed her. Hood had a record of assault convictions that would have come up on a background check. The department stopped using out-of-home safety plans in December 2018 under former Gov. Paul LePage, DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said.