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After the deaths of four young children in Maine in the span of a couple weeks, there is a lot of anger and frustration directed at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Earlier this week, two members of the Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman Board announced that they had left the panel because they felt that the ombudsman, who is charged with overseeing the state’s child welfare system, wasn’t being heard by DHHS.
“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,” Ally Keppel and Allie McCormack wrote in explaining their decision to leave the board.
While we share the concerns and frustrations over the recent child deaths, it is unclear what involvement DHHS had — or should have had — in at least three of the cases.
This points to the need for a thorough review of these cases, with an emphasis on what could have been done differently — by many entities, including DHHS — to prevent them. Those reviews are underway, and if shortcomings in protecting child welfare are found, urgent changes must be made.
In Old Town, Hillary Goding was charged with manslaughter in the death of her 3-year-old daughter, Hailey Anne Goding. Hailey had fentanyl in her system and was exposed to drug paraphernalia that Goding used to ingest what she believed to be heroin in her Center Street apartment in Old Town on June 3, according to a recently released police report.
Last week, the department announced that it was strengthening its efforts to encourage the safe storage of prescription medications and other substances to keep them away from children.
In Brewer, Ronald Harding was charged with manslaughter last month after his 6-week-old infant was shaken to death.
In Temple, a child died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in mid-June. Lawmakers this session passed a bill making it a crime to not secure loaded weapons in the presence of children under 16.
DHHS hasn’t said if it had any involvement with these families.
In the case that has rightly gotten the most attention, Jessica Williams was arrested for murder in June following the death of her 3-year-old son, Maddox Williams in Stockton Springs. Police told Maine DHHS at least twice that Maddox Williams was being neglected by his father, who allegedly brought the child with him when burglarizing an apartment, prior to the child’s death. The agency had placed Maddox with his mother, Jessica Williams, following his father’s arrest in March, according to a police affidavit.
Maddox suffered horrific injuries before he died, according to the 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. Last week, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee requested that the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which reviews state programs and activities, participate in that review, which the department and Casey have agreed to do. The child welfare ombudsman will also participate and a report is due in October.
DHHS has taken many steps in recent years — such as hiring additional child welfare case workers and securing federal funding for work to strengthen families — to improve child safety in Maine. That work is far from complete and continued scrutiny and improvement are essential. This work requires looking beyond bureaucratic metrics to ensure that real, sustained changes in practices and policies are made, where necessary, to improve the wellbeing of Maine’s most vulnerable children and families.