Maine Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, speaks to the press at the Augusta Civic Center on Dec. 2, 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A legislative panel on Wednesday authorized its watchdog agency to explore issues raised by Maine’s child welfare ombudsman, including whether protective workers can properly assess a child’s safety during initial evaluations of cases and during family reunifications.

The ombudsman, Christine Alberi, has said for years that the state’s child welfare system was struggling in those areas, but those concerns have come to the forefront after four Maine children died in June, three of them allegedly at the hands of their caretakers.

The unanimous vote from the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee means that its investigative arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, has until March 2022 to report on the child welfare system’s ability to gauge a child’s initial safety.

That is in addition to an initial, more general report on Maine’s oversight of the child welfare system due by January and a final report to come next fall. The watchdog group, which is already planning a survey of caseworkers, was directed to adjust its other duties as needed to meet those timelines and it has been reviewing the system since the months after the deaths of two young girls in 2017 and 2018.

The state has contracted with Casey Family Programs to conduct a review of their system, but lawmakers on the oversight panel determined last month that more scrutiny was needed, especially as a backlog of criminal cases might delay the release of information around new child death cases for up to two years. Lawmakers highlighted the urgency of getting a review done prior to the Legislature reconvening next year so changes could be proposed.

“I consider this probably to be the most important issue happening in the state of Maine right now,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner.

Alberi has said workers need more training to better assess safety and charged that Maine focuses too much on “quantitative” rather than qualitative metrics of child safety. The Department of Health and Human Services has pushed back, saying it has improved its ability to place children safety, increased hiring and training and decreased turnover. Jackie Farwell, a department spokesperson, said the office would work with the committee to better understand how to improve the system.

Friction between the ombudsman and the department has been apparent this year, with Alberi saying the state has not communicated with her office sufficiently. Emails showed the state initially resisted giving her information about two of the child deaths, although they are now working together. It frustrated two of the ombudsman’s board members, who quit last month.

Advocates pushed lawmakers to go further. Michael Petit, the founder of Every Child Matters and a former commissioner for what was at the time known as the Maine Department of Human Services, testified before the committee that Maine should take a “deep dive” on all children in its care, with a focus on those placed with their parents.

“I do think there is an urgency you could satisfy by going into some of these homes and revisiting what the conditions were, because they change, and the work has changed,” Petit said.