Twenty years ago, Maine was shocked by the death of 5-year-old Logan Marr, a little girl who had been placed in state custody and was killed by her foster mother’s abuse and neglect. Logan’s foster mother, Sally Schofield, was a former caseworker for what was then called the Department of Human Services. Schofield duct taped Logan to a high chair using more than 40 feet of tape, wrapping it around her body and face, and the highchair eventually tipped over. Logan died, slowly, of asphyxiation in her foster mother’s basement.
I was deeply affected by Logan’s death, as were many Mainers. How did the ultimate harm come to this child, who had been placed in Schofield’s home by the State to keep her safe? I became convinced that there were systemic problems with how the State handled child welfare cases. Many others felt the same way. The chosen solution at the time was to combine the Department of Human Services with the Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services, creating what continues to be known as the Department of Health and Human Services, or DHHS.
DHHS is a huge bureaucracy, and it oversees everything from the Maine CDC to SNAP benefits, to licensing long-term care facilities and more. It also includes the Office of Child and Family Services, or OCFS, which is responsible for child welfare. Over the years, investigations have continued to identify poor coordination between law enforcement and OCFS. Changes had been made to fix the problems that led to Logan’s death, but those changes would prove insufficient.
A few years ago, over the course of barely two months, tragedy struck again. In December 2017, 4-year-old Kendall Chick was murdered by her grandfather’s girlfriend; DHHS had placed Kendall in that home. In February 2018, 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy was murdered after months of abuse at the hands of her mother and stepfather. Marissa’s abuse was reported to DHHS, but they did not take adequate steps to get Marissa out of her deadly situation.
I attended these trials and the evidence I heard strengthened my resolve that we are still not doing what we need to do to keep our kids safe. I want to be clear: My concerns about DHHS’s ability to protect children in state care is not a condemnation of the individual caseworkers and others who dedicate their lives and careers to Maine’s children. This work is incredibly difficult and emotionally challenging; it is not a glamorous job. But the evidence tells us that our system is still failing to keep kids safe, even when DHHS is alerted to child abuse or is actively working a case.
Every year, the Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman issues an objective assessment of OCFS’s work. Despite many improvements, the Ombudsman’s most recent report highlights two patterns of failure. First, initial safety assessments are still lacking, including failure to recognize risk to the child when evidence is clear. Second, OCFS often reaches the end of a case, or makes a critical decision about reunification between children and parents, without sufficient information. The result is Maine children continue to be at risk. These problems are structural, rather than the result of individual failings. A structural problem requires a structural solution.
This year, I introduced a bill that would take the Office of Child and Family Services out from under DHHS and make it its own department. I felt by doing this we could give this critical agency the attention and resources it needs. This bill was given due consideration by my colleagues on the Health and Human Services Committee, many of whom did not feel it presented the right solution. I can accept the consensus that this bill wasn’t the right choice, right now. What I can’t accept is more promises that we’ll fix things, while children continue to suffer and even die.
This is not the end of the road for reform. We need bold change to keep Maine’s kids safe, and I will continue to press forward. I’ve heard from people from all over the state who have shared their experiences, and it’s my obligation to do something about it. It’s an obligation we all share to Maine’s most vulnerable: our children.
If you ever have a story to share, or if I can do anything for you or your family, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call my office at 207-287-1515. <