Commissioner Lambrew Appears Before Government Oversight Committee

Joined by Acting Child and Family Services Director Bobbi Johnson

Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew appeared before the Government Oversight Committee today to provide testimony on the child welfare system. She was joined by Bobbi Johnson, Acting Director of the Office of Child and Family Services.

The remarks of Commissioner Lambrew and Acting Director Johnson, as prepared for delivery, are below.

Commissioner Lambrew:

Good afternoon, Senator Hickman, Representative Fay, and members of the Government Oversight Committee. I’m Jeanne Lambrew, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

We were invited here today to discuss recent matters in the Maine Child Protection Services system. In his invitation, Director Schleck said that this is the Department’s opportunity to address OPEGA’s recent report on Jaden Harding. Acting Director Johnson will summarize our response to the report, which is included in its appendix, momentarily. And we are here to answer your questions.

But first, if I may, I’d like to take this opportunity to make a few comments about what this work means to me.

This Committee’s focus on children who died at the hands of their caregivers has been heart wrenching. Every one of these deaths is a tragedy. Each child lost their chance at a future, and each family has a hole in it that will never fill. We mourn their loss. I mourn their loss. And, I ask myself and lose sleep over the question: could each child have survived if something different had been done within the child welfare system?

I also share your frustration. Performance on some key child welfare metrics has worsened. Staff vacancy rates have risen. It is important to acknowledge that.

And I have heard the concerns raised by caseworkers in front of this Committee, and I want you to know that we are looking into all of them. Some have deeply angered me. For example, there is no place in my Department for a supervisor to pressure a caseworker to work without pay. No caseworker who works overtime should ever go without pay.

Every year since I have been in this job, the Legislature and the Department have made changes to the child welfare system. I thank you for that partnership. But those changes, while good, are not keeping pace with persistent problems and new challenges facing Maine children and families, such as the epidemic of substance use disorders and economic instability precipitated by high costs and a difficult economy for many.

We can and must do more and do so differently. It starts with leadership. I believe that any change in leadership offers an opportunity for a reset. As such, we are seeking a new Director of the Office of Child and Family Services who, in addition to the qualifications for any effective Director, is:

  • Empathetic,
  • A strong communicator and a good listener, and
  • Capable of re-instilling faith from our workers and the public in the child protective system that has, despite identified problems, helped thousands of Maine children and families.

We also commit to improving the culture within the Office of Child and Family Services. I am troubled that some caseworkers feel unsupported. We will strive toward changes that let our workers know and feel respected and valued.

And I look forward to reviewing the recommendations of this Committee. The child welfare system needs to be strengthened and problems need to be fixed, and it is the responsibility of this Administration and the Legislature to do so. Given our shared goal of safe children and strong families, I am hopeful that we can work together to make progress.

Acting Director Johnson:

Good afternoon, Senator Hickman, Representative Fay, and members of the Government Oversight Committee. I am Bobbi Johnson, the Acting Director of the Office of Child and Family Services.

While I know we’ve spent time together before, I’d like to start by sharing with you and others my history with the child welfare system. I have worked for the Department for 28 years, since 1995, and began my career as a child protective services caseworker in the Bangor Office. Over the years, I worked as a supervisor, assistant program administrator, and program administrator in Bangor, before having the honor of stepping into the role of Associate Director of Child Welfare Services in 2015. In my current role as Acting Director, I will prioritize the well-being and empowerment of OCFS staff as we work toward our common goal of ensuring child safety.

I also bring to the Acting Director role the perspective of a family member served by child welfare services. Several years ago, I had the privilege of being a kinship resource parent for my great niece who successfully reunified with her parents. This experience was meaningful for me both personally and professionally and provided me deeper insight into the complex and emotional experiences of children, parents, and resource parents involved with the child welfare system.

While the work of child welfare is multifaceted and difficult, I believe deeply in our staff and community stakeholders who are devoted to this work and who are committed to partnering with families and their supports to ensure child safety. Over my 28-year career, I’ve had the opportunity to build solutions with families, staff, and stakeholders and I look forward to continuing that work, as well as having the same opportunity with this Committee.

Jaden Harding Case Review

First, I want to acknowledge the tragedy of Jaden’s death for his family.

The Department of Health and Human Services thanks the staff of OPEGA for their thorough review and analysis of the records in this case. We believe that OPEGA’s report fairly depicts the facts of this family’s history with OCFS and note that OPEGA’s findings primarily center around opportunities to improve the availability and assessment of information, safety planning and decision making, and the way in which policies are developed and implemented among field staff. We agree that there is work to be done to improve child welfare practice in these areas and would note these findings align closely with some of the findings of the Safety Science review of this case and others conducted in 2021.

Those findings have helped to guide several recent initiatives including reviewing and then updating the investigation timeframe to extend it from 35 to 45 days, working with stakeholders to improve the accessibility of information among the partners that serve children and families, and convening a workgroup of staff and other stakeholders to consider improvements to OCFS' safety planning practice.

While OCFS has begun to work to address concerns identified in this case we are also aware that this is just one facet of the work necessary to improve the services and supports available to children and families and ensure child safety and well-being. Nor does this work occur in a vacuum. The world in which our agency operates, and our families live, is constantly changing and we must be agile in identifying and adapting to those changes. That is precisely why Maine’s Safety Science model, which the Ombudsman summarized nicely in your last meeting, has been such a powerful tool for OCFS to identify the circumstances and factors impacting child welfare practice and its implications for children and families in cases involving critical incidents. Included in the Safety Science work is the opportunity for staff involved in the case to debrief at the end of the process to learn from the Multidisciplinary Team’s review of the case and discuss opportunities for improvement. This builds upon work done in the immediate aftermath of a critical incident by the caseworker, supervisor, and program administrator to review history, prepare for any necessary child welfare intervention, and develop briefing information for central office and the Commissioner’s Office. Staff involved in critical incidents also have the opportunity to utilize clinical support services which are available to staff in all our offices.

I want to thank you for the opportunity to be here with you today and for your ongoing commitment to the well-being of Maine children and families. As I’ve watched this Committee over the years, the passion behind your work on this topic has always been clear. I look forward to partnering with you toward more real and meaningful changes that will improve this system.