A month after Maine Gov. Janet Mills proposed an $8 million plan to improve child protective services, legislators endorsed four bills with the goal of improving the state’s system. This comes after the state Department of Health and Human Services reported that 25 children had died in 2021.
Responding to the growing alarm about child deaths in the state, Maine Gov. Mills (D) proposed an $8 million plan in February to improve efforts to keep children safe. Among other things, the proposal would allow the two-person Office of Child Welfare Ombudsman to hire additional staff to investigate child endangerment reports and lengthen the standard contract for the chief ombudsman’s position from one year to five. Mills also pledged to tackle burnout and high turnover among Office of Child and Family Services caseworkers, with additional staff and improved training, and address “the underlying issues that often contribute to child abuse and neglect, like substance use disorder and poverty.”
On Monday, lawmakers advanced bills that supporters believe will help repair the state’s struggling system, including Senate Bill 1960, which would make the state’s child welfare ombuds office more publicly accessible and involved in relevant policies and programs. Another bill calls for greater oversight of the Office of Family and Child Services.
A bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Michele Meyer calls for investments in behavioral health treatment specifically for families involved with rehabilitation and reunification, support for kinship caregivers, and for parents working on regaining custody of their kids, greater access to services.
Maine’s child welfare system has been under scrutiny for years, before Democrat Mills’ Republican predecessor, Paul LePage. But calls for an overhaul grew last summer after the four children died in the custody of caregivers, at least one of whom had prior contact with the state.
The state Department of Health and Human Services reported recently that 25 children died in 2021, more than any year since 2007, when the state began tracking such cases. The department didn’t include at least four deaths that were classified as homicides and haven’t been added to the total because the criminal cases are still pending.