A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.

The state’s child welfare system has been one of the top subjects of legislative debate since the tenure of former Gov. Paul LePage, just as it was ahead of major reforms in the early 2000s.

It has usually been prompted by high-profile deaths that thrust the worst cases into public view. This is going to happen again in 2023.

The Christmas homicide death of a 3-year-old girl in Edgecomb followed a 2021 that was the worst year on record for child deaths reported to the state. Gov. Janet Mills and lawmakers added more money for caseworkers and increased the power of a state watchdog in a budget bill last year, but structural problems are still being noted despite those changes.

That watchdog, Christine Alberi, issued a report this week noting “a downward trend” in the system. In the 86 cases reviewed by her office, 46 were flagged as having substantial issues. The two biggest ones that she identified were with the state struggling with investigations to determine whether a child is safe at home and its decisions about when it is safe to send a child home. In many cases, Alberi found the state failed to recognize risks to kids.

The Office of Child and Family Services, which runs the program under the Democratic governor’s Department of Health and Human Services, responded to the Portland Press Herald by saying the state has advanced policies seeking to help workers navigate “the careful balance of the potential negative and positive impacts of removal and reunification decisions.”

Lawmakers have effectively been investigating the system since the tail end of LePage’s tenure. In the last Legislature, it led to failed proposals for a separate state department to handle child welfare and an inspector general that would carry subpoena power to oversee the system alongside Alberi’s office.

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, has said he plans to introduce that kind of a proposal again and is placing a top priority on the subject in 2023 as chair of the health committee. Mills’ two-year budget proposal is expected next week and it will outline her funding vision for the system, while an early proposal from a Democratic lawmaker seeks to fund and cement a pending child abuse prevention plan. Lawmakers may also ensure that members of their watchdog committee can access sensitive case files by overturning a law that bars it.

Minority Republicans in the Legislature are likely to be aggressive on the topic as well. In the spring, there was a war of words after Jeanne Lambrew, Mills’ health commissioner, said certain criticisms of the department hurt staff morale. Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, responded in an Op-Ed that the administration was being defensive. But Democrats have not been fully assuaged, as evidenced by the proposals coming in this legislative session.

Advocacy groups including the Maine Children’s Alliance have long argued that states should prioritize spending on prevention efforts and supports that would ease the strain on the child protective systems. Abuse and neglect is often linked to mental health conditions or substance abuse and maltreatment is historically higher in rural counties with less access to treatment.

From the child welfare system itself to the conditions that contribute to abuse and neglect, the Legislature’s conversation on this issue should be wide in 2023. Solving these problems has proven far harder to date than pointing to them. That will be the big challenge ahead for Mills and everyone else in Augusta.

Correction: The year 2021 had the highest number of child deaths reported to the state, not the most overall. Those deaths included homicides and others associated with abuse or neglect or in which the family had a history with child protective services.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...