Julio Carrillo puts his head in his hands as he waits to enter the courtroom for his sentencing hearing Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019, in Belfast, Maine. Carrillo was sentenced to 55 years in prison for the beating death of his 10-year-old stepdaughter, a crime that led to changes in the state welfare system. Credit: Brianna Soukup | AP

Maine’s child protective workers are still struggling to determine during their initial investigations whether children are safe at home and, later on, whether children would be safe if they were reunified with their parents, according to a new report by an independent overseer of the state’s child protective services system.

The Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman, which conducts internal reviews of child protective cases brought to its attention, found major issues with nearly 40 percent of the cases it examined in the year before Sept. 30, 2019.

Of the 98 cases ombudsman Christine Alberi reviewed, she disagreed with how the state handled 37 of them, according to her 2019 annual report.

The report comes in the wake of several high-profile murders of Maine children, such as Marissa Kennedy, 10, in Stockton Springs in 2018, and Kendall Chick, 4, in Wiscasset in 2017. They died after people alerted Child Protective Services, within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, with concerns about their safety.

The department is hiring more caseworkers and updating its training. But “Maine is still struggling in the aftermath of the deaths of Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick,” the ombudsman concluded. “Many changes followed in the wake of these deaths, some necessary, some unnecessary, some implemented too quickly, some too slowly.”

The office provided several, de-identified examples of problematic child protective cases that occurred between the summer of 2018 and the spring of 2019:

— After an initial interview of one parent and their children, the department did not complete an investigation until five months later when one of the parents severely injured an infant, “causing life threatening and life-long injuries,” according to the report.

— While an investigation was open for six months, the department received multiple new reports of harm, but the department did not contact the people involved. The department closed the initial investigation and then opened another that stretched on for four months. The department disregarded the results of a risk analysis that showed high levels of risk and, again, did not contact those involved.

— After children were reunified with their parents, the department had not visited with the parents in their home or assessed their living situation after a year and a half. The department had not spoken to others involved or assessed one parent for mental health or substance use disorders despite behavior indicating those potential issues.

The ombudsman also expressed concern that the Department of Health and Human Services does not take children’s absence from school as seriously as it should.

“The Ombudsman does not recommend removal of children from the parents’ custody due to truancy. However, educational neglect rarely exists as an issue in isolation,” according to the ombudsman’s report. “The issue of the Department not recognizing truancy as a sign of risk to a child is a long standing pattern.”

[More than 20 Maine children have died since 2017 amid concerns about their safety]

The ombudsman’s report provides a response from the department, which said it has made changes in recent years that represent “a significant shift,” even as it’s been challenged by a spike in reports of child abuse and neglect.

In 2016 it received 7,463 reports that required an investigation. In 2018, that number jumped by almost 60 percent to 11,831.

In the coming year, the department said it “hopes to reduce the workload demands on staff” as it hires people to fill 62 new child welfare positions funded by the state budget, which took effect in September. (In August, it had 314 caseworkers.)

It is also working with the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine to update its training for both new and experienced caseworkers.

The biggest shift, however, has been a change in practice, Alberi, the ombudsman, said. In the spring of 2018, the department decided to stop sending unsafe children to live with other family members under an informal plan. Instead, the state now files a petition at court to take the children into custody more quickly.

The children might still live at a relative’s home, “but they have more protections,” Alberi said. “It’s put a huge strain on the courts and the system, but it was, I think, a necessary change.”

But when DHHS stopped using those out-of-home safety plans in June 2018, child protective workers told the BDN the change was forcing more children removed from their parents’ homes to spend nights in hotels with caseworkers. There were no other options, the caseworkers said, with a shortage of available foster homes.

In addition to refining new decision-making tools, the department is also starting a Background Check Unit within the Office of Children and Family Services that will provide staff with information from national criminal history databases.

The office “agrees that further work should be done to ensure consistent implementation of all OCFS policies and procedures. Over the past year, OCFS has had the opportunity to learn from staff and partner with national experts to improve casework practice,” the department said.

“‘Is the child safe?’ is the most important question they have to answer,” Alberi said. “There are serious issues, and I’m hopeful that at least this year some of the strain has been taken off the caseworkers, and we’ll start to see a trend in a better direction.”

Questions? Email mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.