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 3-year-old Maddox Williams, who was killed in June of that year. His mother, Jessica, was charged with his murder. Credit: Lauren Abbate

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s child welfare system is still struggling to assess risk of harm early in cases, according to an independent watchdog who reported that calls to her office increased by 13 percent last year.

The report released this week by Christine Alberi, the state’s child welfare ombudsman, comes as Maine’s legislative session kicks off with lawmakers pushing reform efforts. Four high-profile child deaths last June led to new scrutiny of a system that has struggled for decades to manage a delicate balance between keeping children with families or putting them into foster care.

In half of the 84 cases reviewed by the ombudsman’s office last year, she identified substantial issues in how the state handled cases or instances where best practices were not followed. Alberi focused on initial investigations of children’s safety and assessments of whether children can be reunited with families, areas where she has said Maine struggles most.

Her office found that the state was failing to fully investigate children’s situations in initial probes, and was continuing to inappropriately refer high-risk cases that are supposed to be handled by state caseworkers to private providers that are only supposed to take low-risk cases.

When allegations are unsubstantiated or cases are wrongly referred, “the lack of child abuse and neglect findings is mistakenly thought to be evidence of safety,” Alberi said.

In one instance, the state dismissed a petition to protect a child whose parents had a long history with the system, despite the home still being unsafe. Alberi recommended the state explore adding prevention services, increase training for staff and supervisors and seek the opinions of frontline staff throughout the entirety of a child’s involvement in the system.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services defended its practices in a formal response that noted Alberi’s office looked at only a small portion of the 12,000 cases handled, saying removing children from homes can inflict unnecessary trauma on children and are not necessarily safer if they entered state custody than if they remain with a safety plan.

It also noted its plan to end the Alternative Response Program, the one that refers cases to private providers, this year as it brings on more caseworkers. Maine is also implementing provisions of a federal law that focuses on keeping children from entering the system.

The report will be one of many pieces of input lawmakers consider when crafting legislation this year. Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a vocal critic of the department, urged his colleagues to read it during floor remarks on Wednesday. He has pushed for a separate state department dedicated to child welfare that the Legislature rejected last year. Other lawmakers have submitted bills to increase Alberi’s oversight authority.

“It highlights again, one more time, all the work we’ve got to do and we don’t have a lot of time this session,” Diamond said in an interview.

There was a tense relationship between Alberi and the department in 2021. In the spring, two members of the ombudsman’s board resigned from their posts, saying the state was resisting the office’s findings.

Maine officials have said they see the four child deaths last summer as a wake-up call to reform the system. The state has changed their policies to inform the ombudsman of child deaths more quickly. Maine responded to another critical report on the system in October with changes meant to improve communication with hospitals and police.

In its response, the department said current efforts will help caseworkers better collect information. Officials also thanked Alberi for her work on the system, a sign that relations may be improving between the two entities.

“While 2021 brought many challenges, strong collaboration among dedicated stakeholders, including the Ombudsman, will help to keep Maine children and families safe in 2022 and into the future,” said Todd Landry, the director of the Maine Office of Child and Family Services, in a statement.

There were some bright spots: Alberi highlighted instances where caseworkers created and followed safety plans and made efforts to establish strong relationships with their families. These instances, she said, showed the dedication many case workers have to their jobs, despite the challenges they face, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Child deaths are the most highly visible part of child abuse and neglect, and with them came a renewed and intense scrutiny of child welfare,” Alberi said. “This scrutiny is necessary, but creates increased stress on the system, especially on frontline staff.”