Maine Governor Mills Unveils Bipartisan Legislation

Governor Mills Unveils Bipartisan Legislation, Budget Initiatives to Strengthen Child Welfare System in Maine

Governor’s bipartisan bill enhances the independence of the Child Welfare Ombudsman while her budget initiatives implement expert-recommendations to improve child safety

Augusta, ME (STL.NewsGovernor Janet Mills unveiled bipartisan legislation to strengthen the Office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman and announced forthcoming key budget initiatives to bridge gaps in the child welfare workforce, implement recent child welfare recommendations, and improve child safety in Maine.

“Every child in Maine deserves to grow up in a safe and stable environment that provides them with every opportunity for success.  This is why my Administration is working to address the underlying issues that often contribute to child abuse and neglect, like substance use disorder and poverty, and to improve Maine’s child welfare system overall,” said Governor Janet Mills.  “Today, we take another step forward to protect children by enhancing the independent role of the Child Welfare Ombudsman and by funding expert-recommended initiatives to support child protective staff and promote child safety best practices.  My Administration, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and the Child Welfare Ombudsman all share the goal of improving child safety, and, with our bipartisan bill and these new initiatives, we will make progress towards that end.”

“There is no higher priority for the Department and the people of Maine than keeping children safe,” said Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Office of Child and Family Services Director Todd Landry.  “Our child welfare staff remain committed to this goal, and we thank the Governor, the Ombudsman, and the bill’s bipartisan sponsors for supporting them as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to stress Maine families.  The Governor’s bill and her forthcoming budget initiatives will strengthen the vital collaboration among the many partners across the state who are devoted to keeping children safe, secure, happy and healthy.”

Bipartisan, Bicameral Legislation to Strengthen the Office of Child Welfare Ombudsman:

The Governor today unveiled a bipartisan, bicameral bill (PDF) to strengthen the Office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman.  The legislation solidifies the Ombudsman’s authority to hire additional staff at their discretion, increases the length of the Ombudsman’s term from one to five years, requires the Department of Health and Human Services to continue its practice of informing the Ombudsman of any statewide policy changes before they take effect, and codifies into law the Department’s existing practice of notifying the Ombudsman of any child fatality with child welfare involvement.  The Governor will also propose measures in her forthcoming supplemental budget to hire additional staff, provide health coverage for staff, and allow for additional office space.

The legislation is supported by Maine’s Child Welfare Ombudsman and is sponsored by Senator Ned Claxton (D-Androscoggin) and cosponsored by Senator Marianne Moore (R-Washington), Representative Michele Meyer (D-Eliot), and Representative Kathy Javner (R-Chester), the Chairs and Leads of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

“The office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman is grateful to the Governor and to sponsoring legislators for the proposed legislation and budget initiative to strengthen our office and provide much needed additional resources,” said Christine Alberi, Maine’s Child Welfare Ombudsman.  “This bill will enhance the independence and productiveness of our office in order to more effectively do our part in the statewide efforts to enhance the protection of Maine’s most vulnerable children.”

“I am proud to sponsor this important bill, and I look forward to joining my colleagues on the Health & Human Services Committee to consider it alongside several other measures as we all work to make the crucial services of the Child Welfare Ombudsman even more available and influential in the protection of Maine’s children,” said Senator Ned Claxton (D-Androscoggin).

“The Office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman is such an important part of our Child Welfare System,” said Senator Marianne Moore (R-Calais).  “In a time when we are working hard to make improvements to this System, the Governor’s bill will strengthen this important arm of taking care of the Children in the State.”

“Every Maine child has a right to grow up in a safe, supportive environment. Strengthening the Ombudsman’s office is a critical part of achieving that goal: building capacity to review more individual cases and identify better ways to ensure child safety and advocate for evidence-based best practices,” said Representative Michele Meyer (D-Eliot).  “We have an obligation to create a pathway for ensuring our children are protected and able to thrive.  As a cosponsor of the Governor’s bill, I share her commitment to the safety and well-being of Maine’s youngest citizens.”

“We have all seen the importance of the Child Welfare Ombudsman during the last year.  We are in complete agreement that more resources need to be released for the safety of our children,” said Representative Kathy Javner (R-Chesterfield).  “This provides necessary funds for staffing the office at a more productive level.  This initiative will benefit our whole state.”

Supplemental Budget Initiatives Implementing Expert Recommendations to Improve Child Safety in Maine:

The Governor also announced today several initiatives in her forthcoming supplemental budget to implement timely recommendations from Maine’s Child Welfare Ombudsman, nationally recognized experts at Casey Family Programs (PDF), and proposals from the Maine Child Welfare Advocacy Network (PDF) (MCWAN), the Maine Child Welfare Advisory Panel (PDF), and Maine lawmakers.  These recommendations align with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Child & Family Services Strategic Plan to improve policies and practices to ensure child safety.  They include:

Filling key staffing gaps:  Moments of family crisis that require action from Child Protective Services often occur on nights and weekends.  Yet, these shifts are typically covered by staff on overtime.  Staff have repeatedly indicated that the after-hours, weekend, and stand-by shifts significantly impact their ability to effectively complete their work and contribute to staff turnover.  To address this, the Governor’s supplemental budget will propose adding 16 caseworkers and three caseworker supervisors dedicated to night and weekend shifts, as well as additional support staff at the Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) and a new Regional Associate Director dedicated to supporting policy and training, which is in line with the Ombudsman’s call for additional training of caseworkers.

The supplemental budget will also add safety-science staff to review of cases in which a child is harmed in an ongoing manner rather than only after a child death occurs.  This science-safety model was deployed after a review of Maine’s child welfare system by Casey Family Programs and attempts to shift the paradigm away from reactionary responses to ongoing policy improvements based on better understanding how complex systems operate, including the perspectives of those who operate within such systems.  The budget request is for $3 million, including Federal funds.

Extending the Homebuilders Program to support families during reunification:  The Homebuilders model supports successful family reunification including training and preparation for the safe and smooth transition of a child back into the home setting.  It focuses on intensive, in-home crisis intervention, counseling, and life-skills education to teach families problem-solving skills that will support successful reunification and prevent the need for out-of-home care in the future.  This evidenced-based model was supported by stakeholders in developing Maine’s Family First Preventive Services Plan and aligns with recommendations from the Ombudsman and MCWAN.  This $2.2 million budget initiative, including Federal matching payments, would complement the implementation of the Homebuilders Program for families where the children are at risk of entering State custody.
Expanding Family Visit Coaching: Building on a successful pilot, Family Visit Coaching provides families with in-depth training and support focused on parent-child interaction.  This program is intended to facilitate contact between parents and children when children are in State custody after being removed from a home.  Additionally, it helps parents develop skills to better understand the emotional and behavioral needs of their children while strengthening the attachment and relationship and providing an opportunity for parents to demonstrate their ability to meet these needs during coaching sessions.  This $2 million budget initiative addresses the Ombudsman’s recommendation to enhance services to prevent re-entry of children into state custody.
Creating a Parent Mentor Program to improve engagement of parents:  The Governor’s supplemental budget proposal will also include a $200,000 initiative to employ parents who have lived experience with the child welfare system to develop an evidence-based parent mentor program to encourage parents to constructively engage with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, advise on the development of policy, and assist in training new caseworkers.  Almost all reviews of the child welfare system have found that lack of parental engagement with caseworkers, which in most circumstances is voluntary, leads to worse outcomes for children and families.
Including funding to strengthen the Office of Maine’s Child Welfare Ombudsman, these proposed budget initiatives would invest approximately $8 million in improving the child welfare system in Maine.

Ongoing Efforts to Strengthen the Child Welfare System in Maine

Since Governor Mills took office, the Mills Administration has focused on supporting child protective staff by increasing their pay, by enhancing training, and by providing funding for more than 70 new staff positions to reduce their caseloads. OCFS reestablished a partnership with the USM Cutler (formerly Muskie) School of Public Service to help comprehensively review and update policies, assist with writing new policies, and improve training opportunities for staff.  Training includes, but is not limited to, motivational interviewing and advance forensic training to improve caseworkers’ critical analysis skills. OCFS has also established workplace wellness teams, established clinical consultants in all district offices, and provided flexibility and other supports during the pandemic to further support staff.

The Mills Administration has also made systematic improvements to OCFS, including replacing the decades-old Maine Automated Child Welfare Information System with a new system, Katahdin, in January 2022 on time and on budget, streamlining work and saving caseworkers’ time.  The Administration also established a Background Check Unit to improve investigations and has made major changes to the intake process, upgrading the child protective hotline system and aligning work schedules with call volume.

The Administration has also increased the number of resource (foster) families caring for Maine children by nearly 30 percent, implementing a Resource Parent Care Team, which provides services and supports to parents, and updating training for new resource parents to better prepare them for the complex work of caring for children in state custody.

The Department of Health and Human Services is also implementing its Federal Family First Prevention Services Act plan following approval in September 2021 from the Federal government.  The plan will expand prevention services to help keep children and families healthy and safe and prevent the need for children to come into the care and custody of the State.  Maine was the first New England state to gain approval to implement Family First and will receive approximately $2.4 million in additional Federal funding annually.

Recognizing that child safety is impacted significantly by forces outside of the child welfare system, the Mills Administration has also worked to address systemic challenges facing Maine.  Upon taking office, Governor Mills prioritized responding to the opioid epidemic, expanding work to prevent drug use and enhance the availability of treatment and recovery resources – important initiatives as the pandemic has worsened the opioid epidemic both in Maine and across the country.

Governor Mills also reestablished the Children’s Cabinet, which has made significant strides in supporting early childhood development as well as successful transition of youth to jobs and education.  The Governor has also directed the Department of Health and Human Services to focus on causes of child fatalities.  For example, the Department tracked an increase in infant fatalities due to unsafe sleeping habits and launched a public education campaign to help parents and successfully encouraged Maine’s 26 birthing hospitals to become Safe Sleep certified, making Maine the second state in the country to achieve the milestone that protects babies from sleep-related deaths.

Anyone concerned about child abuse or neglect should call the Department’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-452-1999.  Calls may be made anonymously.

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