Senate Republicans call for major changes at the Maine Office of Child and Family Services

To solve systemic issues plaguing the struggling agency, proposed legislation and policy solutions range from creating greater accountability and transparency and better training to fully splitting the child welfare office into a separate department

Senate Republican Leader Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Aroostook (center), flanked by members of the Senate Republican Caucus, kicks off a press briefing at the Maine State House in Augusta on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. The subject of the weekly briefing was the struggles of the Maine Office of Child and Family Services and proposed legislation to help address the issues. (Mike Fern/Senate Republican Office)

AUGUSTA – Legislative Republicans unveiled a wide-ranging package of solutions on Tuesday to help address the longstanding issues that have plagued Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) and its Child Protective Services unit.

The options, presented during the Senate Republican’s weekly press briefing, ranged from changing OCFS’s perceived retaliatory and defensive culture and assessing supervisory staff to providing better training and moving accountability, quality assurance and decision appeals functions to a third party such as the Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman.

For Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Aroostook, who led the press briefing, some of the recent issues involve reunification efforts by OCFS, including families that shouldn’t have been reunited due to ongoing child safety risks but were and those who remained apart but should be reunited. Still, he said working in a bipartisan fashion is key to solving the structural issues with OCFS.

“We, as an entire caucus, look forward to working with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle and frankly the Governor’s office to come up with real meaningful solutions that are going to get our number of child fatalities down to zero,” Stewart said during the briefing. “Success is not more money in the budget or an expansion of government here or there. Success is when no more children are dying in the State of Maine that are within the system.”

One of the major reforms Senate Republicans are advocating for is the complete removal of OCFS from DHHS. This would make it a cabinet level department similar to what existed before the merger of several departments in 2004 as part of a government-wide restructuring.

“I think it’s time to separate the [Office] of Child and Family Services from the Department of Health and Human Services and create two different departments that can more easily be overseen” said Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Androscoggin. “We need to do everything we can to make sure that we do not lose another child here in the State of Maine.”

Timberlake, a member of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee (GOC), and other lawmakers presented ideas around three policy areas: OCFS operational improvement, oversight and accountability, and ultimately restructuring into a separate agency. The effort comes on the heels of GOC’s investigation of OCFS after four children who had some sort of child protective history with OCFS died within months of each other in 2021.

That inquiry led to a report completed last March by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability that was critical of the operations within OCFS. A subsequent report issued by Maine’s Child Welfare Services Ombudsman earlier this month showed the situation has worsened.

“We have had report after report come out and show that Child Protective [Services] really has not made any recognizable improvements as can be measured by outcomes,” Keim said during the press briefing. “So children in Maine are not being kept safe. Children – our children – are dying.”

Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Washington, the Senate Republican Lead for the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, outlined a host of issues within OCFS that were identified last year and still have not been resolved.

“One of our priorities and has continued to be our priorities is that we want to see operational improvement,” Moore said, referring to more caseworker access to medical information and expanded training for both caseworkers and supervisors. “We’re sending these young caseworkers out there to do a job where they’re just out of college. They may not have the experience and we really do need to have that.”

Sen. Rick Bennett, who is also a member of GOC as well as the Senate Republican Lead for the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee (AFA), said Senate Republicans are looking for bipartisan solutions and child welfare is one area where there should be no partisanship whatsoever.

“It is a tough, tough area of policymaking; and I think at its essence we need better accountability,” said Bennett. “We need to fix the lines of accountability in [DHHS]. We’ve got lots of ideas on how to do that and I stand ready to work with people across the aisle and the Administration to fix this broken system.”

Bennett added he’ll ensure there will be available funding to aid the process through his role on AFA. However, he clarified that the funds must be spent wisely to solve the problems instead of just throwing more money at them and it should be done by working across the aisle. “I prefer to do everything in a bipartisan fashion – there’s far too much partisanship in this building,” Bennett said. “On this issue, there should be absolutely none.”

To view the press briefing in its entirety, visit the Maine Senate Republican YouTube page here.

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