Politics & Other Mistakes: Bureaucracy of death

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The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is never going to get its act together — which means more kids are going to die.

The department has repeatedly demonstrated it’s incapable of learning from its mistakes. Funny word, mistakes. It encompasses everything from trivial stuff such as occasional typos in this column to the life-threatening errors made by the department’s Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) that resulted in the deaths of four children in 2021 and will likely be responsible for many more in the years to come.

Al DiamonFixing some mistakes can be easy. I could make better use of spell-check. I could proofread more thoroughly. I could avoid using big words I don’t understand. If only fixing DHHS was as simple.

Every time another kid dies after the state fails to protect him or her, the response is the same. Hire more caseworkers because the ones we have are overworked (this is true). Institute better training for those caseworkers and their supervisors so they can accurately assess the risks children face (this would be a good move, but it never happens). Investigate any deaths to determine how they could have been avoided (good idea, except it usually results in something just squishy enough to avoid being labeled a cover up).

As an alternative, we could face the truth: The department is every bit as dysfunctional as the abusive parents of those four dead kids. Without fundamental reform, it will continue to make a mockery of what it laughingly calls child-protection services.

On May 26, a legislative oversight committee got a big steaming hunk of that reality shoved in its face. Victoria Vose, paternal grandmother of three-year-old Maddox Williams, testified the department had “blood on its hands” for failing to prevent Williams’ mother from killing him.

Jessica Trefethen, the mother in question, is currently serving a 47-year sentence for depraved indifference murder. Before Maddox’s death, Trefethen had already compiled a long history of substance abuse, mental health problems and assorted criminal acts that had resulted in the state taking custody of Maddox and his three half-siblings. In spite of this, caseworkers somehow concluded, during a brief respite from the usual Trefethen chaos, that there was no good reason not to return Maddox to his mother’s custody, even though she’d had no involvement with him for the first two years of his life.

A previous report from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability didn’t seem to think there was anything odd about that and absolved OCFS of most of the blame. But Christine Alberi, DHHS ombudsman, told the committee that didn’t make any sense.

“In most cases, even in the best-case scenario, three months of cooperation and progress with significant mental health and substance abuse issues would not be enough to determine that the parents were able to provide the children with long-term safety and stability,” Alberi said.

That’s a polite way of saying WTF.

The problem goes well beyond stressed-out, poorly trained caseworkers and bumbling supervisors vainly attempting to enforce vague policies and complex laws. These workers down in the trenches can hardly be expected to remedy problems caused by bureaucrats more concerned with protecting their jobs than protecting children. Without new management, the same deadly mistakes will continue to occur.

The responsibility for protecting children should be removed from the blundering mess that is DHHS, allowing the department to concentrate on screwing up health care and welfare. In its place, the state should create a separate department whose only mission would be to see that kids are safe. Bills to accomplish that have been consistently opposed by Gov. Janet Mills, so little progress in that area can be expected until she’s out of office.

That won’t be until 2027. In the interim, the number of children who won’t be saved for being seriously abused or killed is anybody’s guess.

Full disclosure: My wife sits on the board of Walk a Mile in Their Shoes, a nonprofit organization founded by former state Sen. Bill Diamond to advocate for reform at DHHS, including creating a separate department to protect kids. The opinions expressed above are mine and not necessarily hers.

If you spoot any typoos, email me at [email protected].

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