The Bangor office of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is shown in this 2019 file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A national children’s rights group and a social justice organization have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the state of Maine of failing to properly oversee foster children on psychotropic drugs.

Maine was one of five states cited by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2018 as having insufficient medication monitoring or treatment planning for foster children. The agency found one-fourth of children did not receive any monitoring, and one-fifth had no treatment plan. There was no requirement that case workers follow up with foster parents about medications.

A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday on the behalf of five children by the groups Children’s Rights and Maine Equal Justice, along with the law firm Bernstein Shur, claimed the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has yet to fix those shortcomings, violating children’s right to safety. It accuses Maine of not maintaining reliable medical records or a sufficient informed consent policy to consider the risks of putting children on medication or reviewing the use of the drugs.

That lack of oversight has caused children to suffer adverse effects from medication, including suicidal ideation, anxiety, irritability and more, according to the lawsuit, which says those symptoms have in turn disrupted their personal and learning development. Foster children are especially vulnerable because they do not have a consistent party interested in their welfare, which increases the risk of miscommunication, conflict and lack of follow-up, the complaint says.

The parties are seeking a class-action status and a court order requiring the state to implement more stringent policies.

DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell slammed the lawsuit in a statement, saying plaintiff Children’s Rights sat on the allegations rather than reporting them to Maine and starting an investigation process.

She also pointed to another lawsuit the organization filed in New Hampshire, along with other advocacy groups, as proof that Children’s Rights is focused on “filing lawsuits, not protecting children.” The New Hampshire lawsuit dealt with the institutionalization of young people.

Maine’s child welfare program has been under increased scrutiny since the high-profile deaths of two children at the hands of their caregivers in 2017 and 2018. Workers have struggled with large caseloads and burnout in recent years, something the state has worked to address through more hires.

Farwell pushed back on the notion that Maine has not improved, saying DHHS has instituted reforms that reduced the number of foster children on psychotropic drugs from 33 percent in 2018 to 20 percent in late 2020.