BELFAST — Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced actions Oct. 26 to improve the safety of Maine children and families in response to recommendations from Casey Family Programs, a nonprofit that conducted a review of the department and recently issued a report on its findings.

DHHS requested the review in July following a series of child deaths in June. Five children, all 4 years old or younger, died from accidents or serious injuries. The deaths occurred on June 1 in Brewer, June 6 in Old Town, June 17 in Temple, June 20 in Stockton Springs and June 24 in Windham.

In three cases, the Portland Press Herald reported, caregivers were charged with manslaughter or murder. In at least one case, child protective caseworkers were working with the family.

The Casey report recommends effective coordination among a coalition of providers, and joint protocol agreements among police, hospitals and child welfare staff. It also suggests ways to support engagement between parents and the child welfare system.

Several other recommendations call for reviewing current work tasks (and removing redundant tasks), best practices for staff standby and after-hours protocol and assessment of time frames.

Sen. Chip Curry, D-Waldo, a leading advocate, along with Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Cumberland, of reforming the state’s child welfare system, said he thought the report was a good start for what it is — an internal report to give DHHS some direction. “It should be helpful for them, to be a better partner,” he said.

“They are trying to figure it out,” he said, and added the changes should come from within the department.

Curry told The Republican Journal that the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, a nonpartisan, independent legislative office, is also reviewing the state’s child welfare program, and its report should be ready for the next legislative session.

“There is a tendency to scapegoat, and that is not helpful,” he said. “This is a complicated system and we have to get to the systemic issues.”

Curry said there must be more transparency outside the department. “I get (that) they have to be confidential with the cases,” he said. “I am putting forward a bill to have the ombudsman act more like the inspector general and have access to case files.”

The ombudsman’s report from last year is pretty damning, Curry said, with two members of the board quitting in protest. They were highlighting issues such as an incomplete interview process and not having enough follow-up with kids after placement with their permanent family. There should be follow-up to answer basic questions like “How is it going? Is the child safe, or not,” he said.

For Curry, a review of the workplace culture and job satisfaction at DHHS also would have been helpful in the Casey report.

“It’s an incredibly hard job,” Curry said, suggesting it could be a case of poor organizational culture. “Is it a toxic workplace where people feel they always have to work overtime and have no other priority in their life? I hope the OPEGA report addresses that,” he said.

Speaking specifically about Marissa Kennedy, the Stockton Springs 10-year-old who died at the hands of her parents from repeated abuse in 2018 — school officials and neighbors reported her case,  medical providers, caseworkers and mental health officials were involved, along with police, and it still did not make a difference. “It’s an incredible loss,” Curry said.

After a tragedy of this nature, he said, there are internal and external investigations and sometimes it makes a difference. “The pressure for this (legislative) session,” he said, “is to make it matter.”