Politics & Other Mistakes: DHHS never learns

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When it comes to keeping kids safe, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is the equivalent of an unlocked shed full of dynamite and matches located next to a playground. DHHS’s Office of Child and Family Services is a fundamentally flawed institution, incapable of change due to entrenched, incompetent leadership.

As a result, children suffer from physical and mental abuse, and some of them die. Every time that happens, there’s an uproar, an investigation and calls for reform. Then, nothing changes.

Fixing this problem shouldn’t be that complicated. For years, the child welfare services ombudsman, Christine Alberi, has issued annual reports pointing out what needs to be fixed. In 2018, after two young girls, Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick, died because DHHS failed to recognize the jeopardy they were in, the Legislature passed laws designed to improve the system. In her report that year, Alberi said the department’s caseworkers needed to be better trained to decide whether a child’s home was safe and if it wasn’t, what had to be done to make it safe.

Al Diamon“Caseworkers and supervisors must have increased and consistent training in investigative techniques to improve the assessment of child safety and ongoing assessment of the progress of parents working towards the reunification with their children,” Alberi wrote.

A year later, there seemed to be cause for optimism. “Child Welfare Services is on a path to reform and progress,” says her 2019 report, “but there is still a great deal of work to do.”

Then came the pandemic, and the old failings reappeared (if they ever went away). “Practice confusion over the appropriateness and implementation of safety planning was found in multiple cases,” the ombudsman’s report reads.

In 2021, “practice confusion” (translation: incompetence) by DHHS contributed to the deaths of four kids. “At the writing of this report,” Alberi said, “the Department is working to determine the best way to implement safety science in Maine.”

Weren’t they supposed to have already done that?

Apparently not. The ombudsman’s 2022 report found the department was still struggling with “practice issues,” which is a polite way of saying it hadn’t resolved the major problems identified in previous reports. Training for frontline workers was still inadequate, and supervisors weren’t paying attention to what those caseworkers were telling them about children’s safety.

Now it’s 2023, and there’s a fresh report on how DHHS is responding. Or not responding. Mostly, the latter. Alberi found a “downward trend in child welfare practice.” More than half the cases her office reviewed had “substantial issues” and “increasingly there are cases and situations where the department had sufficient facts to determine that the child was unsafe but did not recognize the risk to the children and act accordingly.”

Speaking of not acting accordingly, Gov. Janet Mills proposed next to nothing in her new budget to address these issues, Meanwhile, the chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, state Sen. Joe Baldacci of Bangor, told the Portland Press Herald the next step should be more oversight. “What we really need,” Baldacci said, “is an independent office that will bring accountability to the system.”

Isn’t that what the ombudsman does?

Uh, yeah, but Alberi can’t subpoena records, and Baldacci’s new inspector general would be able to do that. And with those documents in hand we’d be able to determine all the stuff the ombudsman has been telling us for years is still true.

In the meantime, we can hope not too many more kids die.

There’s a more practical solution, but it’s one that’s fiercely opposed by Mills and her ilk: Remove the child welfare office from DHHS. Set it up as a separate cabinet-level department. Fire all the bureaucrats who’ve been running it. Rebuild it with a real focus on kids’ safety.

Anything less won’t work. As Bill Diamond, a former state senator who’s starting a foundation to advocate for child welfare (full disclosure: my wife serves on his board), told the Press Herald, “The child protection system is broken. It’s just absolutely broken. The state doesn’t really protect children. Their words are hollow because things just keep getting worse.”

Sorry for the lack of jokes, but something about dead children doesn’t strike me as funny. Cheer me up by emailing [email protected]

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