Joe Baldacci speaks with a supporter outside of the Cross Insurance Center in July 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine lawmakers are looking to improve oversight of the state’s child welfare system after four child deaths in recent months brought renewed attention to problems that watchdogs have flagged as persistent.

Maine’s ability to monitor children’s safety was questioned after two children who were under its protection, 4-year-old Kendall Chick and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy, died in late 2017 and early 2018, respectively. Lawmakers launched probes and made immediate changes, including adding caseworkers after many reported feeling too overworked.

But the early part of COVID-19 pandemic stretched the system, with more children entering it between January and October 2020 before declining this spring. Four child deaths in June led the state to announce an investigation of those cases, but two members of the child welfare ombudsman’s board resigned the next month, saying the state was ignoring recommendations.

Ahead of their return to Augusta in January 2022, lawmakers are proposing new bills and suggesting that stronger oversight, better resources or stronger criminal penalties will prevent more deaths from occurring, although it is unclear how supportive the state will be of some changes after the opposed certain proposals earlier this year. They are among 330 bills being floated for the next legislative session, but they must be approved by a panel of top lawmakers before then.

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, said one of his bills would create an inspector general office within the system. The inspector general would be separate from the child welfare ombudsman, appointed by the governor and serve a five-year term, similar to Nebraska’s model. Sen. Chip Curry, D-Belfast wants to give the child welfare ombudsman more active involvement in cases.

“We need to have better oversight to make sure people are doing what they’re supposed to do,” Baldacci said.

The Bangor lawmaker is also submitting a bill backed by prosecutors and sheriffs to make endangering a child a felony, adding more family magistrates and changing laws outlining when a child is at risk of serious harm to include situations in which they are living in a home with someone convicted of domestic violence without completing a batterer’s intervention course.

It is not clear if the state would be open to these measures, with spokesperson Jackie Farwell saying the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, would review the bills when they are finalized. It resisted further-reaching proposals in 2021, including one from Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, to put child welfare in its own state department, separate from the Department of Health and Human Services. He is planning to revive the effort this year.

Other notable efforts include bills to add more staffing and resources to the ombudsman’s office, something Christine Alberi has said would make her job of reviewing cases and answering questions for people involved in the system easier.

A bill from Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, looks to continue Maine’s alternative response program, which is now tasked with handling lower-risk child protective cases. The current budget funds the program for another year as the Mills administration transitions from using it to adding caseworkers who are supposed to pick up that workload.

Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, is looking to require caseworkers to take at least an eight hour break after working 15 hours, something she said will relieve the burnout caseworkers have reported.

“These workers are not only evaluating a child’s welfare, they’re making reports and testifying in court and making visits in person,” she said. “We need to ensure those working conditions are good so they can do the best job possible.”