An organization that advocates for Maine kids is seeking feedback on ways the state can improve its child welfare system after the highly publicized deaths of two young girls, allegedly at the hands of their caregivers, within the past year.
While Maine lawmakers passed a set of changes last summer that were meant to close gaps in the system and included $21.2 million in new funding, the Maine Children’s Alliance believes more needs to be done and that any improvements must be guided by people working within the system.
To that end, the Augusta-based group has been seeking input from agencies and workers around the state at forums in Lewiston and Orono. It plans to hold another forum in Portland on Nov. 27, and a final one at an undetermined time and location.
At the Orono session Tuesday night, Executive Director Claire Berkowitz said the end goal is to provide recommendations to Gov.-elect Janet Mills and the incoming Legislature.
While about 20 people attended the Lewiston session, just six came to Orono this week, perhaps because of the rainy weather. They included Berkowitz, one of her colleagues, a pediatrician and two people who work in the foster care system.
Another attendee, Wendy Gilbert, works as a forensic interviewer at Penquis Children’s Advocacy Center in Bangor.
In that role, she often works with state officials. While she praised the staff at the Bangor office of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, she said more workers should be hired there.
“I really enjoy working with the DHHS Bangor office, but I also recognize that there are some resources lacking for children that need to change,” she said.
During the forum, Gilbert pointed to another shortcoming that she has noticed. In her work, she frequently works with law enforcement and state officials to interview children who are victims of sexual abuse.
But under the state’s current laws, she said, it can be hard for state child protective workers to intervene when a child alleges sexual abuse by another child, even though that allegation could signal a pattern of abuse in the family.
While the Maine Children’s Alliance is looking to improve the care of children in state custody, it is also trying to propose changes that will prevent the need for children to be removed from their homes or families, according to Melissa Hackett, the group’s communication and outreach assistant.
She called the legislation that passed last summer “a good start” and highlighted the funding it included for 16 new caseworker positions.
But the Maine Children’s Alliance also opposed a measure proposed by outgoing Gov. Paul LePage — and passed by lawmakers — that de-emphasized how much effort child protective workers should put into reuniting children with families from which they have been removed for safety reasons.
While a child’s safety is the “first priority,” Hackett said, “children being removed away from homes is a traumatic experience.”
By collecting feedback from current child welfare workers, the Maine Children’s Alliance is trying “to step back” and “look at the whole system,” Hackett said. “What’s the connection between vulnerable families, and are we doing enough at the front end to support them so kids don’t end up needing to be in protective services?”