More evidence shows things must change as problems mount for DHHS

By Senator Jeff Timberlake

Last week was an eye-opener for many of us here in Maine. Between the Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman report released on Tuesday and the disclosure of the December Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) memo regarding the heartbreaking death of Maddox Williams, you can say it’s been a tough week for Maine’s DHHS.

Hello, this is Senator Jeff Timberlake of Androscoggin County. While I’m glad to join you for this week’s Republican Radio Address, I wish I could say it was for better reasons.

Jeff Timberlake – Androscoggin

The report issued by Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi confirmed what we’ve been saying for years – things are just not right within DHHS and its Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) and Child Protective Services divisions. What she found in looking at 83 cases was similar to what she reported to the Legislature last year.

More than half of all the child welfare cases she examined in 2022 had substantial issues in how they were handled. She found the same problem with half of the cases she reviewed in 2021 and nearly half in 2020.

In her latest report, Alberi said the welfare of Maine’s children continues to show a “downward trend.” It is in fact getting worse and some of the cases she examined in her report were quite disturbing.

  • In the case of a child born prematurely, parents disregarded medical advice and police were called to the home eight times for domestic abuse issues in the first 15 months of that child’s life before one parent was finally arrested.
  • In another case, a parent outright denied there was a problem and told a caseworker that the parent did not intend to change any risky behaviors. The case was closed without further follow-up.
  • Another case had a child stay in a home for five months as reports of domestic violence, neglect, medical neglect and an unsafe parent piled up before the child was finally taken into State custody.
  • One case even had a child who witnessed an overdose – still, OCFS chose to have the child remain in the home.
  • Yet another involved repeated charges of domestic abuse so severe that it included strangulation and criminal charges. All the while, an infant was left with those parents for eight months before finally being removed into State custody.
  • And an abused infant in one case was taken away only to have another infant born while the first child’s case was still open. The second infant was allowed to remain with the parents, only to result in serious injury to that child as well.

Which brings me to the child deaths that occurred in 2021, namely that of Maddox Williams. A DHHS memo disclosed last week contained six pages of DHHS/OCFS interactions that began the day Maddox was born in January 2018.

From his birth until his death in June of 2021, his family was the subject of multiple alleged reports including:

  • Substance use, including his two-year-old sister ingesting liquid methadone;
  • Maddox being held by his father as he was caught during a burglary;
  • Domestic, physical or emotional abuse and/or neglect by all three parents involved;
  • Medical neglect;
  • Maddox being found in a car after his father was arrested for driving under the influence.

As Alberi states in her report, OCFS must handle each case based on the facts of the case. Yet she rightly points out the obvious that OCFS management is failing when it comes to determining children’s safety and, in some cases, even failing to recognize the risk or take decisive action to protect the child when it’s right in front of them.

As we look to the future, we must remember the past and here it clearly shows things have failed. That is why I’ve put in legislation to remove OCFS from DHHS and make it a separate agency. It’s the only way to truly transform the work this agency does and how they do it.

Again, this is Senator Jeff Timberlake of Androscoggin County. As we look to the future, I thank you for joining me today.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake is serving his third term in the Maine Senate and represents the communities of the newly reapportioned District 17 (previously District 22). He is the Senate Republican Lead for the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

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