What we’ve learned from DHHS

Senator Rick Bennett delivers this week’s Republican Radio Address

By Senator Rick Bennett

AUGUSTA – As we wrap up the Second Regular Session of Maine’s 130th Legislature, you can say that we’ve seen a whirlwind of different issues in front of legislators. However, there are few issues as important as how we handle matters involving Maine’s children who need help across our state.

Hello, I’m Senator Rick Bennett of Oxford County, and it’s my pleasure to bring you this week’s Republican Radio Address.

Sen. Rick Bennett – Oxford

There’s no doubt we’ve had to tackle some tough challenges during this session. We’ve seen bills ranging from dealing with “forever chemicals” in our soils to saving two of our precious Maine Veterans homes in Caribou and Machias. Yet what has been one of the most eye-opening issues for me has been how we handle child welfare and safety at the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS).

Issues involving children aren’t new to me. I currently chair the Legislature’s Children’s Caucus, which is a bipartisan group of legislators from both houses that examines issues surrounding children and families in our state. Our mission is simple: We work to improve the availability and effectiveness of services across the system of care through both government and various community groups, and our goal is to improve outcomes for Maine’s children and families.

A critical piece of that is OCFS and its Child Protective Services (CPS) unit. And the work of that unit transcends the interests of any one legislature – and certainly beyond the adjournment of it.

Currently, CPS has oversight of 2,297 children under its direct custodial care, a drastic measure taken when a court finds a child is no longer safe in their home environment and must be temporarily placed elsewhere. On top of that, they oversee another 1,500 or so children in foster care and about 4,500 through child care subsidies. In 2021, CPS conducted almost 9,800 child abuse investigations. In all, DHHS is involved with about 18,000 children across its many programs and services.

Yet in 2021, four children aged four and younger who were in OCFS custody died within weeks of each other in May and June. But that wasn’t the worst of it – last year ended up being the deadliest on record with another 25 child deaths linked to cases of abuse or neglect that were being tracked by OCFS.

In response to the four deaths a year ago, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee – of which I also am a member of – asked our Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) to investigate the practices of OCFS. What they found was a staff of caseworkers who were overworked and often didn’t have the required time to complete full investigations that would effectively assess children’s safety. They also recommended to DHHS management that they evaluate the nature and extent of after-hours work requirements and expectations currently placed on caseworkers, which could lead to burnout.

That may all be good, but it doesn’t go far enough.

What we saw from both OCFS and DHHS is a defensive culture that indicates a lack of transparency, and it seems there may be deeper problems. After OPEGA released its report, and my committee met in March to review it, DHHS’s commissioner turned the tough but fair questions from legislators who are charged with oversight and government accountability into a narrative about how we were attacking the department and its staff.

If the death of children under its care doesn’t invite legitimate legislative scrutiny, I don’t know what does.

We are still in the midst of reviewing OPEGA’s report and recommendations, and we’re still learning more information about the struggles of OCFS and how we can help them reform to a better agency. It’s our role to do this, and it’s our responsibility to Maine’s families.

Yet we need a Department of Health of Human Services that is transparent to both the Legislature and Maine’s people. Circling the wagons is never the answer.

Again, I’m Senator Rick Bennett of Oxford County, and I hope you have a great weekend.

Senator Rick Bennett represents District 19 and is the Senate Republican Lead for the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and a member of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee.

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