Jessica Gleason, center, urges for systemic change within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services on July 1, 2021 at a gathering outside of the agency's Rockland office following the death of Maddox Williams. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

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Ally Keppel of Brunswick and Allie McCormack of Freeport were members of the Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman Board. Keppel is the board’s past president.

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Last Monday, we resigned from the Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman Board. We are the two longest serving members on the board, including Ally Keppel’s service as the president of the board.

Collectively, we have spent 16 years on the board interacting with the Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman and listening to the current ombudsman Christine Alberi’s increasing concerns regarding the Department of Health and Human Resources. These concerns reached a crescendo prior to the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy in 2017 and 2018, and were brought to the attention of Maine legislators by the ombudsman before the tragic deaths of these two children.

Following the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy the ombudsman continued to report significant concerns related to the handling of child welfare in Maine, as well as DHHS’s continued resistance to her findings. As time went by, reports from the ombudsman to the board took on an eerie familiarity, and the ombudsman’s 2019 and 2020 annual reports to the Maine Legislature continued to expose the same systemic safety issues that led to these needless child deaths.

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. Processes created following the death of Logan Marr in 2001, including the ombudsman, have clearly been ineffective in influencing DHHS, which essentially ignores or actively resists ombudsman findings.

There is a supreme irony that there is no statutory requirement requiring DHHS to report child deaths to the ombudsman. Shamefully, the ombudsman hears of these deaths when the public does, or through unofficial channels. More shamefully, the ombudsman’s requests to review the specific facts of these tragic deaths are met with resistance. It took Rep. Patricial Hymanson, D-York, who used a statutory process to authorize the ombudsman to review the deaths of Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick.

The ombudsman is currently performing the enormous task of trying to influence DHHS and improve Maine’s child welfare practices with a minimal budget allowing for only two employees. This is laughable considering the size of DHHS, and the insight the ombudsman has clearly brought to the growing problem of serious child abuse and neglect in our state.

Another problem is that the ombudsman must file yearly requests for proposals to the governor to continue her work. Clearly, this critical function should have the protections of a multi-year appointment in order to survive the vagaries of changing administrations, promote honest independent assessments and command the respect the ombudsman deserves from DHHS.

Logan Marr’s death in 2001 prompted some initial legislative soul searching and the creation of the Child Welfare Ombudsman. The needless deaths of Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick triggered some additional soul searching and a few statutory changes. However, these changes were made without legislators ever having read the reports from the ombudsman regarding what led to the deaths of these children. That should change. We are now dealing with four or more child deaths within a single month with varying degrees of DHHS involvement.

One recent death involves 3-year-old Maddox Williams from Stockton Springs who reportedly had bruises all over his body, a fractured spine, bleeding in the brain, bleeding in the abdomen and three teeth knocked out. What Maddox went through is unimaginable.

Obviously DHHS alone can’t be expected to ensure this never happens again. However, as the agency responsible for child welfare in Maine, DHHS needs to be less resistant to outside influence and more willing to engage with the Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman, whose annual reports to the Legislature, unfortunately, have been shown to be all too accurate.