Deputy Maine Attorney General Lisa Marchese, the state's top homicide prosecutor, gives closing arguments in a murder trial on June 18, 2019 in Portland. Credit: Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Portland Press Herald via AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — A backlog of serious Maine criminal trials may hinder a ramped-up legislative probe into the child welfare system, a top state attorney said on Wednesday.

The high-profile deaths of four Maine children within a month — three of which were allegedly at the hands of parents — has led to increased scrutiny of the embattled system. It has been under fire in recent years since 2018 after two other child deaths, and the state is partnering with a national organization to help investigate the recent ones.

The Office of Child and Family Services has set a 90-day timeline for Casey Family Services to complete its work and to give recommendations on how the state can improve its child welfare practices. But the sensitive nature of these cases and long-standing backlogs could create delays in releasing criminal investigative files to lawmakers and the public.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Marchese, the state’s top homicide prosecutor, told the Legislature’s watchdog panel on Wednesday that the most recent child death cases may not conclude for up to two years from now. The state could share details with Casey, but it could not give them to the panel or its investigators under confidentiality laws.

It could complicate the view into the child welfare system as lawmakers wrestle with further action. More kids entered the system during the COVID-19 pandemic and Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi has said the state still struggles with investigations into child safety and assessing whether children should be left with parents, while the state touts strides in child safety and staff training.

The committee unanimously directed the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability on Wednesday to review how it could broaden its work surrounding the system. The office is expected to come back in August with a revised plan that could include a look into child safety practices and legislative oversight, in addition to a planned frontline worker survey.

Todd Landry, the director of the Office of Child and Family Services, said he was confident the court delays would not affect the state review and its ability to make improvements, but he acknowledged that it could hinder other reviews, including that of another state panel that investigates all child deaths in Maine.

But lawmakers are also questioning whether the state’s timeline is realistic. Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said the department should not “hang its hat” on the Casey review and should pursue deeper investigation, something he said could not be accomplished within the outside group’s 90-day timeframe.

“If the knowledge and information on how to reform our department and our systems exists, what is keeping us from succeeding?” said Sen. Chip Curry, D-Belfast, one of two lawmakers who has asked the committee to further investigate the child welfare system.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, questioned why the state should work with Casey when Alberi has already recommended improving training on safety assessments and determining if a child will be safe once reunited with their parents. The ombudsman said that 40 percent of the 43 cases she reviewed through October 2020 through April had “substantial” issues, virtually the same rate as what she saw at the beginning of last year.

“We know that we want children to exit state custody as fast as possible,” Alberi said. “But do we have enough information to say whether or not the child will be safe if they go home? We have found that the answer to this question is, not always.”

The state has defended its efforts, pointing to increased hiring, decreased staff turnover and better placement metrics during a year when more children entered Maine’s custody. Landry said efforts to improve the system are ongoing, but the Casey Family review is critical to determining if any additional work or changes are needed.

For now, lawmakers may have to wait while that review is conducted, a concept that seemed to frustrate the panel. Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, said Landry had given the committee the sense that the office was “on the up-and-up” when he went before the committee in April.

“How did these cases slip through the cracks?” he asked.

Landry responded that while improvements may have been made overall, individual cases can demonstrate that progress still needs to be made.

“So you have to take into account and balance all of those factors, including these individual cases, to help inform larger system-wide practice,” he said.