Not enough is in Gov. Janet Mills’ two-year budget proposal to address the child welfare system, lawmakers from both parties said Wednesday.
The release of the governor’s proposed $10.3 billion contains $15 million in additional funding for foster care and adoption services that the Democratic governor said will play an important role in improving Maine’s child welfare system.
But what lawmakers and advocates did not see is any attempt to fundamentally restructure a system they say has failed the state, just one week after the state’s child welfare ombudsman released a report that showed “substantial issues” in a majority of reviewed cases and said the system showed “a downward trend” in practices.
The child protective system has faced years of scrutiny. The deaths of two young girls prompted lawmakers to add money to the system in 2018. Mills has added caseworkers, but more high-profile killings, including that of 3-year-old Maddox Williams in 2021, have kept attention on the system. On Christmas, an Edgecomb 3-year-old was killed in an open homicide case.
“For long-term structural change, there needs to be independent oversight regarding the child protection process,” said Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, who co-chairs the Legislature’s health committee.
Child Welfare Ombudsman’s report
He called Mills’ proposal a positive step, with praise for increased funding for behavioral health, substance use treatment and child care. His committee will examine whether the state can increase caseworker pay and ensure they are getting strong training and not being overworked.
“They’re on the frontline,” Baldacci said. “I definitely think we need to value the job more.”
He said the $15 million to adoption and foster care would likely have “mild impact” but hopes that the adoption system is oriented toward promoting kinship care, which is when children are put under the care of relatives. Over the long term, he is proposing an independent inspector general over DHHS with subpoena power and the ability to make changes.
New caseworkers are not included in this budget proposal, but that is because dozens of those positions created in the last budget in 2021 have still not been filled, Mills said. There are 62 vacant child welfare caseworker positions, according to a health department spokesperson.
“We want to fill those with people who take those jobs and do so competently,” Mills said.
Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a member of the Legislature’s oversight committee, which has been investigating the system, said Wednesday that he had not reviewed the budget synopsis. But he sees filling existing positions as a priority, suspecting they may not be getting applicants in part because of the pressures associated with the job and heavy scrutiny.
“Who wants to go to work in that environment right now?” he asked. “You got a lot of people with eyes on you.”
For Timberlake, Maine’s child welfare woes aren’t from lack of funding: they are from leadership. Upper and middle management have erred by overseeing a system that is keeping many children in unsafe homes, he said.
He believes that could be alleviated by splitting off the Office of Child and Family Services from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, akin to how things were before Gov. John Baldacci signed legislation combining them in 2004. That idea failed in the Legislature in 2021, with the Mills administration arguing against it by citing costs and administrative burden.
The person who championed that, former Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, was “really surprised” that so little seemed to be in the budget for child welfare in light of the significant number of high-profile deaths in recent years and the ombudsman’s report. Also not appearing to be present was more assistance to the frontline workers the ombudsman said should have a greater voice in the department.
“There’s no significant structural changes being made,” Diamond said. “This is a place to bring that up. It’s right in the budget. It doesn’t look like that’s happening.”