A photo of Marissa Kennedy is held up for a photographer by an attendee at a 2018 Belfast vigil. Credit: Emily Burnham / BDN

Two long-standing members of the board of directors for Maine’s child welfare ombudsman have resigned, saying the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is not receptive to the office that is supposed to oversee it.

Maine’s child welfare system was thrust back into the spotlight last month following the deaths of four children under the age of 4. The recent deaths follow attempts to reform Maine’s child welfare system after two high-profile child deaths in 2017 and 2018, though some advocates say those efforts have been insufficient.

In a resignation letter shared with the Bangor Daily News, Allie McCormack and Ally Keppel, both former members of the Board of Directors of the Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman, argued that Maine DHHS was resistant to the ombudsman’s work and findings, while faulting the Legislature for failing to take action to fix what they see as systemic problems within the agency.

“Another legislative session has gone by without any significant changes, and the newspaper articles reporting multiple child deaths involving some degree of DHHS involvement have arrived as feared,” the pair wrote. “Processes created following the death of Logan Marr in 2001, including the Ombudsman, have clearly been ineffective in influencing DHHS, who essentially ignores or actively resists Ombudsman findings.”

The child welfare services ombudsman board of directors is a volunteer group that offers general policy suggestions to the office, though its members do not have access to confidential information about individual child welfare cases. McCormack and Keppel had both served on the board for eight years.

In their letter, the pair alleged that Ombudsman Christine Alberi often found out about the deaths of children who had been involved with DHHS at the same time as the public. They characterized Maine DHHS as resistant to external review, saying a state legislator had to get involved before the ombudsman’s office was able to review the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in 2018 and 4-year-old Kendall Chick in 2017. In both cases, Maine DHHS had been notified of concerns about the children’s welfare prior to their deaths.

The state has increased funding for the ombudsman’s office since then, McCormack noted in an interview. But he said lawmakers had failed to address larger problems with the system, including reluctance from DHHS to turn cases over to the ombudsman for review or listen to its recommendations.

“I don’t believe there’s evil people involved,” McCormack said. “I just think it’s a bureaucracy that just is not capable of addressing systemic issues in a way that they need to be addressed.”

He said board members anticipated more child deaths because they saw the reforms as insufficient. In Brewer, Ronald Harding was charged with manslaughter last month after his 6-week-old infant was shaken to death. In Old Town, Hillary Goding was charged with manslaughter in the death of her 3-year-old daughter, Hailey Anne Goding. In Temple, a child died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

In Stockton Springs, Jessica Williams was arrested for murder in June following the death of her 3-year-old son, Maddox Williams. Police told Maine DHHS at least twice that Maddox Williams was being neglected prior to his death. The agency had placed him with his mother, Jessica Williams, following his father’s arrest in March, according to a police affidavit.

Maine DHHS said last month that it would bring in Casey Family Programs, a national organization focused on reducing the need for foster care, to review all four cases. Alberi said her office plans to investigate three of the four deaths as well.

The ombudsman has conflicted with DHHS in the past. In 2019, the office found major issues with how the state handled nearly 40 percent of cases that it examined, saying that changes implemented in the wake of high-profile deaths were sometimes unnecessary or implemented at the wrong pace.

In a statement Monday, Maine DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell said the agency “will continue to provide the Ombudsman with as much information as possible on the subset of cases her office chooses to review.” In addition to the Ombudsman’s office, she noted, cases are subject to review by the Child Death and Serious Injury Review Panel, the Maine Child Welfare Advisory Panel and the Maine Justice for Children Task Force.

“We take seriously our responsibility as a state and as a society to do all we can to help children grow up safe and ensure they have the love and attention they need,” Farwell said.