Marissa Kennedy steps on the bus for the first day of kindergarten in New Windsor, New York several years ago. Credit: Contributed

Nearly two years have passed since Marissa Kennedy was killed on Feb. 25, 2018. Her death, and the Dec. 8, 2017, death of Kendall Chick, devastated their communities and the state as a whole.

These tragic deaths, both at the hands of family caregivers, also exposed critical failures of Maine’s child welfare system.

When I joined Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services in April 2019, our child welfare staff shared their concerns about unmanageable workloads and a lack of support. But they also shared their commitment and optimism for a system that better serves Maine children and families.

Partnering with staff, as well as stakeholders, the Legislature, the Child Welfare Ombudsman and regional and national experts, the office has developed a vision for the future of child welfare in Maine and strategies to move toward that vision. We’ve spent the last year focused on solutions that can be accomplished swiftly and structural reforms that require patience.

Chief among these changes is ensuring we have adequate staff to meet the workload demands. Since January 2019, we have added, with the support of Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature, more than 130 staff, including caseworkers and other critical positions. The governor has requested an additional 20 staff in her supplemental budget proposal to further protect children and support families.

Beyond hiring, continuity in the child welfare workforce is key to establishing permanent homes for children, whether through reunification or adoption, in a timely manner. To that end, we’ve focused on retaining our staff and providing them tools to improve their efficacy. OCFS has partnered with the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service to review and update child welfare policies to make them clear and easy to navigate for all involved with our system. We also are working with the Muskie School to update our training programs to effectively prepare staff for the difficult and complex work of child welfare.

We implemented the legislatively approved $5-per-hour stipend for child welfare staff. And, working with contracted providers, we are lowering the amount of time staff spend supervising children in emergency departments and hotels. Data indicate that these changes have reduced the staff turnover rate from 23 percent in 2018 to 18 percent in 2019.

Last year, we also awarded a contract for a new Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System, modernizing the 20-year-old system that staff use to track and document their work. When fully implemented, this will allow staff to spend more time working with children and families and less time on paperwork.

Another area of focus is the information available to our staff as they make difficult decisions about children’s lives. Our Intake unit is the “front door” of the child welfare system, where staff receive reports of suspected abuse and neglect. In 2019, we updated the intake phone system, resulting in a significant increase in the percentage of calls answered live. We also tested and, given strong results, are implementing statewide a background check unit to provide staff with critical criminal history information on potential caregivers.

As we have worked to address urgent needs while planning for longer-term improvements, the number of children in care has risen by 35 percent in two years to 2,224 as of Jan. 1, 2020. This is due in part to the opioid crisis, as well as to the heightened public awareness of child welfare. We are grateful to Maine’s dedicated and capable foster parents who are caring for these children, and we’re working to improve their experience, including simplifying the home inspection process. We encourage anyone interested in becoming a foster parent to contact A Family for ME.

Still, Maine’s children and families will be better off when they can remain safe and stable without the need for child welfare involvement. The recently enacted federal Family First Prevention Services Act presents an unprecedented opportunity to make transformative changes in child welfare, through funding for evidence-based prevention services that strengthen families and proactively support children at risk of abuse, neglect and separation from their families. We are working to fully implement Family First in 2021.

While we have made strides, a great deal more work lies ahead. We have strong leaders and advocates in Mills, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and members of the Legislature; insightful, engaged staff and stakeholders committed to the safety and well-being of Maine’s children and families; and experts across the nation lending us their expertise and experience. Together, we can create a future where all Maine children are safe, first and foremost, but also stable, happy and healthy.

Todd Landry is director of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child and Family Services.