A vigil remembering the life of Marissa Kennedy was held in March 2018 in Stockton Springs. Credit: Emily Burnham / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Recorded child deaths in Maine doubled between 2020 and 2021 to the highest single-year total since the state’s child welfare system began collecting that data.

Twenty-five children died last year in incidents tracked by the state that were associated with abuse or neglect or after a history of family involvement with the child welfare system, according to updated data released by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services last week.

It is the highest number of deaths recorded in a single year dating back to 2007 and more than double the total from 2020. The data also are an undercount because homicides last year that are the subject of criminal proceedings — including four reported in June — are not included.

It is a stark example of the challenges facing the state as lawmakers consider major reform ideas. Ten of the deaths last year were deemed accidental, seven were in a category including undetermined causes or suicide and three were co-sleeping incidents. None of the recorded 2021 deaths were homicides, but those will be added after being adjudicated.

The figures are an example of the complicated nature of child welfare, said Shawn Yardley, a former child protective worker and the CEO of Community Concepts, which provides case management services for lower-risk child welfare cases.

While much focus is placed on the protective side of the system, he said other elements like supporting lower-income parents can be just as important to ensuring child safety. The figures also do not detail the extent of caseworkers’ involvement in each instance, something the state does not disclose except in high-profile cases or in court.

“It raises questions about whether parents had the ability to provide a safe place for children,” he said. “You can have accidents, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t culpability somewhere.”

The increase in deaths occurred in a year when the number of children in DHHS custody declined by about 4 percent after increasing during the first year of the pandemic, according to the state’s most recent annual report. The pandemic made it more difficult to get insight into child welfare, in part because of remote schools and social distancing.

Those challenges continued into the second year of the pandemic, said Jackie Farwell, a department spokesperson. The state said the data release is meant to increase transparency around child deaths and help improve the child welfare system.

The department is still struggling to assess early on when a child is at risk and if they will be safe during reunification with family, according to the most recent report from Christine Alberi, the state’s child welfare ombudsman.

Despite disagreements with some of Alberi’s findings, the state and her office have said communication is improving. A state-initiated report last year also led the state to review communication with hospitals and police and revise staffing procedures.

The Legislature’s watchdog arm is also reviewing Maine’s child welfare practices in a series of reports. The next one in March is expected to focus on the ombudsman’s concerns around initial risk assessments in cases. Lawmakers have submitted myriad proposals — from prioritizing child homicide prosecutions to giving the ombudsman more staffing — being considered now.