The Maine Department of Health and Human Services offices on State Street in Augusta, shown in this December 2017 file photo. Credit: Darren Fishell / BDN

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The head of an independent body that reviews child welfare incidents told lawmakers Wednesday that she has not seen improvements in the system and that a recent report to address problems touches only “one tiny tip of the iceberg.”

Christine Alberi, child welfare ombudsman, said of the 84 cases reviewed between July 1, 2020 and June 30 of this year, 42 of them had substantial issues. That means there was a deviation from standard practice that had a negative effect on a child or parental rights, she said.

“Unfortunately, case specific reviews by the ombudsman…show a downward trend in child welfare practice,” she said, adding that the causes are complex and that COVID-19 added significant stress.

Alberi spoke to a joint meeting of the Government Oversight and Health and Human Services committees, which received an update on steps the state’s Office of Child and Family Services is taking to address problems in the wake of recent child deaths.

Maine child welfare ombudsman Christine Alberi. Credit: Garrick Hoffman / Maine Monitor via Spectrum News

After five children died in June, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services asked Casey Family Programs to look into the deaths. All of the children were 4 years old or younger and in some instances, their parents are facing criminal charges.

Then last week, a 14-month-old died at a hospital after his mother reported that he was unresponsive. The Oakland mother was later charged with aggravated drug trafficking after police found nearly 6 pounds of fentanyl, more than 3 pounds of methamphetamine, more than a pound of crack cocaine and more than $2,000 in cash.

And this week, a 3-year-old girl was hospitalized after she overdosed on heroin in Oxford County, WGME reported. Her mother has been charged with drug possession and endangering the welfare of a child.

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, pressed consultants hired by DHHS on whether they could provide the state with information about how to identify children who are at risk.

“One of the key goals is to have an early warning system to prevent these deaths in the first place,” Baldacci said. “The vast majority of the fatalities are children ages three and under and the families are very young.”

Scott Modell of Collaborative Safety Review, a consultant hired by DHHS, said he wasn’t an expert in that area, but that he was not aware of a list of characteristics that could be identified that would prevent most incidents.

“People can at times do awful things,” he said. “Some of it is not predictable.”

The Casey report on the state’s child welfare system includes key findings that cited the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, staff turnover and communications breakdowns with those that provide mental health and substance abuse support.

The recommendations include working with a coalition of providers to coordinate support, the creation of agreements between law enforcement, hospitals and child welfare staff and looking for ways to support “engagement between parents and the child welfare system.”

Todd Landry, head of the Office of Child and Family Services, said the state has already begun to address staffing problems by increasing staff on weekends and holidays, giving more flexibility with shift work and clarifying expectations when cases are transferred from one worker to another.

He said work with law enforcement, hospitals and the attorney general’s office is ongoing as they hammer out a communications protocol that will lead to better information sharing.

Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, said he was looking for more concrete information in the report about the recent child deaths and steps the state can take to prevent them in the future.

“Is this a research paper or a product of some in-depth analysis of what went wrong?” he asked.

He said he was hoping to see recommendations that would lay out an “aggressive action plan for Maine going forward.”

Modell said their job was to recommend systemic fixes, not revisit shortcomings in specific cases.

Alberi described the report as a starting point.

“I’ve heard frustration about the report, I think everyone was sort of hoping it would be the thing that would solve all of our problems, but it’s meant to only be a start,” she said. “It’s just one tiny tip of the iceberg of the process and the reviews going forward.”

By Susan Cover

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