Our fears of more child deaths in Maine have become a reality. They shouldn’t have.

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Ally Keppel of Brunswick and Allie McCormack of Freeport were members of the Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman Board. Keppel is the former chairman of the board.

If you are concerned about a child being neglected or abused, call the 24-hour Maine hotline at 800-452-1999 or 711 to speak to a child protection specialist. Calls can be made anonymously. For more information visit maine.gov/dhhs/ocfs/cw/reporting_abuse.

Last Monday, we resigned from the Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman Board. We are the two oldest board members, including Ally Keppel’s service as chairman of the board.

Collectively, we spent 16 years on the Board of Directors interacting with the Maine Child Protective Services Ombudsman and listening to current Ombudsman Christine Alberi growing concerns concerning the Department of Health and Human Resources. These concerns reached a crescendo before the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy in 2017 and 2018, and were brought to the attention of lawmakers in Maine by the Ombudsman before the tragic deaths of these two children.

After the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy, the Ombudsman continued to report significant concerns related to the management of child welfare in Maine, as well as the DHHS ‘continued resistance to its findings. Over time, the ombudsman’s reports to the board have taken on a strange familiarity, and the 2019 and Annual reports 2020 The Maine legislature continued to expose the same systemic security issues that led to these unnecessary child deaths.

Another legislative session passed without significant change, and newspaper articles reporting multiple child deaths involving some degree of DHHS involvement arrived as feared. The processes created as a result of death of Logan Marr in 2001, including the ombudsman, were clearly ineffective in influencing the DHHS, which ignores or actively resists the ombudsman’s findings.

It is a supreme irony that there is no legal requirement for the DHHS to report child deaths to the ombudsman. Unfortunately, the Ombudsman hears about these deaths when the public does, or through unofficial channels. More shamefully, the ombudsman’s requests to examine the specific facts of these tragic deaths are meeting resistance. It took Rep. Patricial Hymanson, D-York, who used a statutory process to authorize the ombudsman to see again the death of Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick.

The ombudsman is currently carrying out the enormous task of trying to influence DHHS and improve Maine’s child welfare practices with a minimal budget allowing only two employees. This is laughable considering the size of the DHHS and the insight the Ombudsman has clearly brought to the growing problem of serious child abuse and neglect in our state.

Another problem is that the ombudsman must file annual requests for proposals with the governor to continue his work. Clearly, this critical function should have the protections of a multi-year appointment in order to survive the whims of changing administrations, promote honest independent reviews, and earn the respect the ombudsperson deserves from the DHHS.

Logan Marr’s death in 2001 sparked an initial legislative introspection and the creation of the Child Welfare Ombudsman. The unnecessary deaths of Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick sparked further soul-searching and some statutory changes. However, these changes were made without legislators ever having read the ombudsman’s reports on the causes of the deaths of these children. That should change. We are now dealing with four or more child deaths in a single month with varying degrees of DHHS involvement.

A recent death involved Maddox Williams, 3, of Stockton Springs, who reportedly had bruises all over his body, a fractured spine, brain bleeds, bleeding in the abdomen and three broken teeth. What Maddox went through is unimaginable.

Obviously, DHHS alone cannot guarantee that this will never happen again. However, as the agency responsible for child protection in Maine, the DHHS must be less resistant to outside influences and more willing to engage with the Maine Child Protection Services Ombudsman, whose annual reports to the legislature, unfortunately, have proven to be too accurate.

About Sharon Joseph

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