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Watchdog sends report on problems with child services

January 6, 2022 GMT

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Lawmakers officially received this week a report from an oversight body for Maine’s child services that includes summaries of the “substantial issues” the office found in the cases it investigated in 2021.

The office of Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi opened 84 cases in response to complaints about the Office of Child and Family Services, which is an agency of the state Department of Health and Human Services, the Portland Press Herald reported.

Alberi briefed lawmakers on many of the findings in November, including that it had found “substantial issues” in 42 of the cases, or half of the 84 it reviewed.

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In an email to the newspaper this week, Alberi said, “We have been tracking the same practice issues detailed in the reports for many years, and there has not been evidence of significant statewide improvement in those practice issues yet.”

She added that she was hopeful there would be slow but steady improvement in case outcomes.

In a response to the watchdog report, the department issued its own report saying it had dealt with 12,000 cases in the 2021 fiscal year. It acknowledged there was disagreement with the ombudsman’s office in multiple cases about whether to bring children into state care.

“While OCFS recognizes the perception that children are safer when removed, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that removing a child from their home has the potential to inflict harm or trauma,” the health department report says.

The department also said that it had already decided to end contracts to recommend low or moderate severity cases to outside providers known as the Alternative Response Program. The watchdog agency’s review of cases found multiple instances in which severe cases were referred improperly to the program.

The department said all contracts with the outside providers would end in June of this year.

The child welfare office has been under scrutiny for years, which was renewed when five children died over the course of a month this summer.