Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, listens at his desk in the Maine Senate on Dec. 5, 2018. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly a year after high-profile child deaths placed renewed attention on Maine’s child welfare system, lawmakers growing impatient with the state raised the idea of gaining access to confidential case files to inform overhaul efforts.

Much of the discussion at a legislative hearing on Wednesday revolved around whether a watchdog committee should seek access to depersonalized case records from the Office of Child and Family Services that are now used by nonpartisan investigators to gain a better understanding of potential missteps taken in child welfare cases.

The new inquiries from frustrated lawmakers could put them on a collision course with the state, which signaled on Wednesday that it was wary of opening up confidential records to scrutiny. It portends greater tension over this summer as the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee continues a sweeping investigation of the system during an election year.

Child welfare has been one of the top areas of debate in Augusta since 2018 in the wake of separate rounds of high-profile child deaths. This year, Gov. Janet Mills and lawmakers set aside millions more for caseworkers and gave more power to the system’s ombudsman. The state has touted gains in training and has changed policies to better communicate with police.

Problems have persisted. A March report from the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability found caseworkers remain overworked. Last year, 29 children died after a history of family involvement with the child welfare system or where abuse or neglect had ever been present, the highest number on record of incidents the state tracks.

“I think the core of the frustration is we don’t feel like we’ve changed much since 2016, 2017,” said Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, who co-chairs the government oversight panel.

Some of the frustration stems from how the state talks about its work. The committee needs to hear fewer “bureaucratic statements” and more from rank-and-file staff to understand how they are being trained and what direction they have, said Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-Biddeford.

Some argue more immediate steps should be taken. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, and Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, led a news conference outside the State House on Wednesday alongside foster parents, child care providers and people who have had loved ones in the system.

They said change cannot happen if the state continues to be defensive in light of criticism, and accused DHHS of being unclear about what it would need to make OFCS run smoother.

“You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what it is to begin with,” Timberlake said.

Tension between members of the committee and the state was apparent in April when Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew accused some who attended a hearing of questioning the department’s motives, which she said was “detrimental to our shared goal” and came “at the expense of staff morale.”

It escalated in print: Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, a committee member, wrote in a May 5 Portland Press Herald column that the department was being defensive. Health committee members Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot and Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, fired back that Maine has made progress and should follow through on new policies.

Allowing lawmakers to access case files could be cumbersome, said Chief Deputy Attorney General Chris Taub. They can be large, and it would take time to depersonalize them. Lawmakers might have to review records in executive session and return or destroy them afterwards.

That depends on whether the state would be willing to turn the records over. The state welcomes ideas to improve the system, said Jackie Farwell, a spokesperson for the health department, but she seemed resistant to the additional access lawmakers sought, saying the state is both committed to protecting child privacy and being more transparent.

She pointed to efforts the state has made to improve the system, such as changes included in a recent spending plan aimed at improving in-home crisis intervention, helping families develop parenting skills and better coordinate services to prevent child abuse and neglect.

The recent changes are of little comfort to Victoria Vose, the grandmother of slain Stockton Springs 3-year-old Maddox Williams said she saw missteps of the state up close as she tried to keep her grandchild from being reunified with his mother, Jessica Williams, who is accused of depraved indifference murder in the death of her son.

“Maddox matters,” Vose said. “Every child matters.”