A photo of Marissa Kennedy is held up for a photographer by an attendee at a Belfast vigil to honor the life of the 10-year-old Stockton Springs girl in February 2018. Credit: Emily Burnham / BDN

Two former board members of the watchdog tasked with overseeing Maine’s child welfare program see hope in new legislation aimed at improving the office.

Alley Keppel and Allie McCormack resigned from the board of the Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman last summer in protest of what they said was the Department of Health and Human Services’ resistance to oversight. But legislation proposed by Gov. Janet Mills earlier this week that would give the ombudsman more independence has given them some hope.

The bill would give the ombudsman’s executive director a five-year contract and control over staffing, as well as funding to provide health insurance for staff. Currently, the executive director serves a one-year contract.

“The notion that somebody is a watchdog, and they have to beg for their job every year, is just so ridiculous,” said McCormack, who served on the board for eight years with Keppel before they resigned together in July.

The proposal also requires the department to notify the ombudsman’s office of any policy changes before they take effect, as well as notify the office of child deaths.

Keppel said Ombudsman Christine Alberi, who has served in the position since 2013, was “totally ignored” by the Department of Health and Human Services.

“The department just had no respect for the ombudsman whatsoever,” Keppel said. “So I’m glad that the legislation is making her more involved.”

Alberi did not immediately respond to requests for comment. She said Monday when Mills announced the legislation that the initiative would “enhance the independence and productiveness of our office.”

DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Todd Landry, director of DHHS’ Office of Child and Family Services, said in a joint statement that the changes would “strengthen the vital collaboration among the many partners across the state who are devoted to keeping children safe, secure, happy and healthy.”

Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, is sponsoring the governor’s legislation, which combined previous legislative proposals. The governor’s office announced the legislation just a week after data showed that 25 children died last year in incidents related to abuse or neglect, or after a history of family involvement with the child welfare system. It is the largest one-year total since the state began tracking the data and more than double the number from 2020.

Last month, the ombudsman’s office said in its annual report that DHHS had failed to improve its processes for investigating child safety and evaluating whether children could be reunited with parents. The report also said the ombudsman found “substantial issues” in 42 of the 84 closed cases it reviewed last year.

Keppel and McCormack resigned from the board after four Maine children died last summer.

“Another legislative session has gone by without any significant changes, and the newspaper articles reporting multiple child deaths involving some degree of DHHS involvement have arrived as feared,” they wrote in a letter shared with the Bangor Daily News. “Processes created following the death of Logan Marr in 2001, including the ombudsman, have clearly been ineffective in influencing DHHS, which essentially ignores or actively resists ombudsman findings.”

A more independent Ombudsman’s office is not going to fix the longstanding problems with the state’s child welfare program, but it’s a good first step, said Keppel.

“It certainly is not a silver bullet,” Keppel said. “But there is no silver bullet in the real world around this issue. It’s going to be a number of things that have to change.”