Last month, Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) released their annual report of child deaths tracked by their offices. The deaths included in the report are homicides, those that occur as a result of abuse or neglect, and deaths that happen in families that have had prior involvement with Maine’s child protection system. Tragically, 2021 saw the highest number of child deaths since DHHS started keeping records in 2007: A shocking 25 child deaths. Even more tragically, this number doesn’t include the four child homicides that happened last year because these criminal cases are still ongoing.
Each and every one of these deaths is a heartbreaking loss to families and our larger community, but when a child is lost to violence, we know that something has gone terribly wrong. Despite this sad milestone, I’m actually more optimistic than I’ve been in quite some time that we’re going to address the systemic failures that let these kids down. My optimism is due in large part to the number of people from all across the state who have shared their stories with me recently. It’s critical that Mainers take hold of the chance we have in front of us to make change, and I want to share with you some upcoming opportunities to do just that.
On Friday, Feb. 11, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee will take comments from the public regarding part one of a report they commissioned from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, about Maine's child welfare system. Part one is an information brief about how oversight of Maine's child welfare system is structured. You can read the information brief and offer testimony by visiting legislature.maine.gov/opega/goc-meetings/9151, and you can watch Friday’s proceedings at youtube.com/c/MaineStateLegislature.
Parts two and three of OPEGA's review are coming this March and September and will examine how effectively Maine's child welfare system is evaluating the risk children face in their homes during both the initial parts of a case investigation, and when that child is being considered for reunification with their family or for other permanent placement. The independent Child Welfare Ombudsman has identified these two areas as needing improvement in recent years. I’ll keep you updated on this important review and hope that you’ll choose to participate in future public feedback sessions on this report.
Another opportunity for you is to testify in front of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 17. During that public hearing, I’ll be presenting my bill LD 1812, which would increase staffing in the Ombudsman’s office so that they can better execute their mission of helping families resolve child protection issues with DHHS. The Committee will be hearing several other bills on this issue during that public hearing, too, and your voice is a critical piece in helping these bills become law. You can submit written testimony or sign up to testify live via Zoom at https://www.mainelegislature.org/testimony/. If you need special assistance or would prefer to testify live via a toll free number, please contact the Legislative Information Office at 207-287-1692.
The Health and Human Services Committee will continue working on these issues in the coming weeks and months. My bill LD 1834, An Act To Establish Ongoing Monitoring of Maine's Child Protective Services will have a public hearing at some point soon, though it hasn’t been scheduled yet. Another one of my bills, LD 1857, An Act To Prioritize the Prosecution of Child Murder Cases, had a public hearing in late January and was the subject of recent work sessions in the Judiciary Committee. A portion of the Committee voted in favor of advancing the part of my bill that directs the Attorney General to formally request that the Courts prioritize the scheduling of homicide cases where the victim is a child. That bill now faces votes in front of the full Legislature, and you can help by requesting your Representative and Senator lend their support. You can reach your Representative at 1-800-423-2900 and your Senator at 1-800-423-6900.
If you have any questions about the bills I’ve shared here, or if I can help you sign up to testify, please reach out to me. You can contact my office at (207) 287-1515 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org any time. Thank you to everyone who is doing their part to fix the system by sharing their stories. <