Kendall Chick. Marissa Kennedy. Logan Marr.

We know their names because they were killed by an abusive parent or caregiver despite numerous warning signs missed by the state child welfare agency.

In each case, the fatal abuse was not a one-time event. Subsequent prosecutions showed that the children had been subject to acts of cruelty so blatant they couldn’t escape notice. That leads to two conclusions that are both inescapable and sickening: Those lives might have been saved, and the children’s deaths were the only thing that stopped their abusers.

These are just the names we know out of the thousands of children who have passed through state custody over the last two decades, during four different gubernatorial administrations and subsequent efforts to reform the agency, to cut its budget and, more recently, to restore it.

But the tragedies continue. Five children, all 4 years old or younger, died from accidents or serious injuries within a month of each other last spring. In three cases, caregivers have been charged with manslaughter or murder. In at least one case, child protective caseworkers were working with the family.

We can’t know for sure but must assume that other children in Maine homes are suffering as much or nearly as much as the children who died. All we have are general assurances from state officials who run the program that Maine is doing all it can to protect them. In the wake of these deaths, it is incumbent on the people of Maine to demand more.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, has been leading this fight for years, saying that systemic weaknesses within the department are a bigger problem than the number of employees or the party of the administrator in charge.

Last year Diamond proposed spinning off  the Office of Child and Family Services into a separate department. We did not agree with his solution but felt that he had identified the right problem. This year, we join Diamond in his support of new reforms that would make the agency more transparent and accountable without giving up families’ privacy.

Among them is a bill sponsored by Democratic Belfast Sen. Chip Curry. LD 1755 would provide more independence to the office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman, giving lawmakers access to the real workings of the department, in more than just the cases that make headlines.

Maine has had an ombudsman, or agency watchdog, since 2001, following the death of Logan Marr, a 5-year-old who was suffocated by Sally Schofield, a foster parent who had previously been a child welfare caseworker.

The position is currently held by Christine Alberi, who serves on on a contract that is renewable annually.

Curry’s bill would put the office on more secure footing, making the ombudsman a gubernatorial appointment who, with legislative approval, would serve a five-year term. It would also provide the office with staff and resources for investigations. And Curry’s bill would empower the ombudsman to access information about child protective cases and share it with legislators in closed sessions as part of their oversight duties.

“By law, the department can’t share a lot of information, so our ability to provide oversight is limited,” Curry told the (Portland) Press Herald’s Randy Billings. “What’s clear to me now is we also need a stronger ombudsman office. We need to staff it up and make sure they have the independence to go where they need to go, find the information they need to find and engage on both of those missions.”

Alberi has expressed frustration with the department, telling lawmakers in November that she found “substantial issues” with dozens of the complaints she investigated last year and no evidence that the department had made significant progress on outstanding issues.

Criminal prosecutions reveal a lot about individual cases, but they offer only hints about problems that are embedded in the culture of an agency. Empowering an ombudsman who could dig into agency records strikes the right balance between confidentiality and oversight.

It’s too much to expect any agency to be perfect, but before we add other names to the list of children who never got a chance to grow up, we need to know that Maine is doing all that it can.

Reprinted from The Portland Press Herald.

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