AUGUSTA — On Thursday, Feb. 24, the Legislature’s Health and Humans Services Committee voted in favor of a bill from Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, to improve Maine’s child welfare system.

LD 1960, “An Act To Make Changes to the Laws Governing the Child Welfare Services Ombudsman Program,” received bipartisan, unanimous support from members present. The committee also included in the bill a key provision and many other elements from LD 1755, a bill sponsored by Sen. Chip Curry, D-Belfast, “An Act To Enhance the Child Welfare Ombudsman Program.”

“Like so many parents across Maine, I’ve mourned the recent child deaths in our state,” Curry told the committee, according to a press release from the Senate Majority Office. “As a legislator, it’s been incredibly frustrating to see our child protective services fail to protect so many children. With the passage of these provisions that further empower the ombudsman’s office, I believe we are taking significant steps to strengthen Maine’s child welfare system.”

Claxton, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, said, “When a child dies, the whole state mourns. When a child dies from a preventable, violent event, the state must step in to ensure it never happens again.”

LD 1960 would make a variety of changes to strengthen the Child Welfare Services Ombudsman’s Program, including improved staffing, funding and employment benefits; ensuring the program can provide input and recommendations to the Department of Health and Human Services as well as the Legislature; and allowing the program to provide direct support to people and families involved with the state’s child welfare services.

The bill also would require DHHS to give advance notice to the ombudsman of any policy changes affecting child welfare services, and to notify the ombudsman of certain child deaths.

Key provision added to LD 1960 from Curry’s LD 1755 would include the ombudsman as a member of the child death and serious injury review panel, to ensure the program can provide more informed and thorough oversight of child welfare services.

In 2021, 708 inquiries were reported to the Ombudsman Program, which is an increase of 91 from 2020, and 66% of those were for children 8 years old or younger. During 2021, the ombudsman opened 95 cases. Of the 84 cases closed that year, 42 had substantial issues.

Maddox Williams, 3, of Stockton Springs was one of five young children who died violently in June 2021. Source: GoFundMe

Four Maine children, all younger than 4 years old, died between May 31 and June 20, 2021. They include 3-year-old Maddox Williams of Stockton Springs, who passed away after being brought to the hospital by his mother and grandmother. His mother, Jessica Williams, has been charged with murder.

Maddox’s injuries have been described in court cases. Involvement of the Office of Child and Family Services has not been made public.

Ten-year-old Marissa Kennedy, whose mother and stepfather are imprisoned for her murder.

This came less than three years after the death of Marissa Kennedy, also of Stockton Springs, who died from abuse and neglect in her family home after 25 reports from school employees, neighbors, and medical professionals with concerns for her well-being.

In July 2021, two long-serving members of the Board of Directors of the Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman resigned their positions. Their resignation letter spelled out the reason for their resignations as a frustration in the lack of needed reform in Maine’s child welfare systems, leaving children at risk of harm and abuse.

In its 2020 annual report, the Ombudsman’s Office details how OCFS continues to struggle to fully protect Maine children in two key areas, according to the press release: determining the safety of a child in the home during initial investigations, and making informed decisions about whether it is safe to reunify the children with his or her parents.

LD 1960 now faces votes before the Senate and House.