Governor Signs Bipartisan Legislation to Strengthen Office of Child Welfare Ombudsman

Governor’s bipartisan bill enhances the independence of the Child Welfare Ombudsman while budget initiatives implement expert-recommendations to improve child safety 

Governor Janet Mills announced today that she has signed bipartisan legislation to strengthen the Office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman.

The bipartisan, bicameral bill, which was proposed by the Governor, solidifies the Ombudsman’s authority to hire additional staff at their discretion, increases the length of the Ombudsman’s term from one to five years, ensures the Department of Health and Human Services continues its practice of informing the Ombudsman of any statewide policy changes before they take effect, and codifies into law the Department’s existing practice of notifying the Ombudsman of any child fatality with child welfare involvement. The Governor has also proposed measures in her supplemental budget for the Office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman to hire additional staff, provide health coverage for staff, and allow for additional office space.

“The Office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman is an important partner in the State’s effort to protect children,” said Governor Janet Mills. “I am grateful for the support of both the Child Welfare Ombudsman and the Legislature in passing this legislation, which builds on our ongoing work to improve child safety and strengthen the child welfare system – a goal shared by all.”

“The office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman is grateful to the Governor and to sponsoring legislators for the proposed legislation and budget initiative to strengthen our office and provide much needed additional resources,” said Christine Alberi, Maine’s Child Welfare Ombudsman. “This law will enhance the independence and productiveness of our office in order to more effectively do our part in the statewide efforts to enhance the protection of Maine’s most vulnerable children.”

“There is no higher priority for the Department and the people of Maine than keeping children safe,” said Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Office of Child and Family Services Director Todd Landry. “Our child welfare team remains committed to this goal, and we thank the Governor, the Ombudsman, and the bill’s bipartisan sponsors for supporting them as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to stress Maine families. This new law, along with the Governor’s budget initiatives, will strengthen the vital collaboration among the many partners across the state who are devoted to keeping children safe, secure, happy and healthy.”

The Governor’s bill was supported by Maine’s Child Welfare Ombudsman and sponsored by Senator Ned Claxton (D-Androscoggin) and cosponsored by Senator Marianne Moore (R-Washington), Representative Michele Meyer (D-Eliot), and Representative Kathy Javner (R-Chester), the Chairs and Leads of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

“I was proud to sponsor this important bill on the Governor’s behalf and am glad to see it signed into law,” said Senator Ned Claxton (D-Androscoggin). “It will make the crucial services of the Child Welfare Ombudsman even more available and influential in the protection of Maine's children.”

“Our neighbors, our families and our social workers who are on the front lines are counting on us to create real reform. This new law is a critical step forward in protecting Maine’s most vulnerable children,” said Senator Chip Curry (D-Belfast). “I’m grateful to Governor Mills for putting this bill forward, to Senator Claxton for sponsoring it, and to my other colleagues in the Legislature for supporting it.”

“The Office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman is such an important part of our Child Welfare System,” said Senator Marianne Moore (R-Calais). “In a time when we are working hard to make improvements to this System, the Governor’s bill will strengthen this important arm of taking care of the Children in the State. I applaud her for signing it into law.”

“Every Maine child has a right to grow up in a safe, supportive environment. Strengthening the Ombudsman's office is a critical part of achieving that goal: building capacity to review more individual cases and identify better ways to ensure child safety and advocate for evidence-based best practices,” said Representative Michele Meyer (D-Eliot). “We have an obligation to create a pathway for ensuring our children are protected and able to thrive. As a cosponsor of the Governor’s bill, I share her commitment to the safety and well-being of Maine’s youngest citizens and am proud to see it become law.”

“We have all seen the importance of the Child Welfare Ombudsman during the last year. We are in complete agreement that more resources need to be released for the safety of our children,” said Representative Kathy Javner (R-Chesterfield). “This new law will provide necessary funds for staffing the office at a more productive level and will benefit our whole state.”

The legislation also complements key budget initiatives from the Governor to bridge gaps in the child welfare workforce, fill key staffing gaps, and implement recent child welfare recommendations from Maine’s Child Welfare Ombudsman, nationally recognized experts at Casey Family Programs (PDF), and proposals from the Maine Child Welfare Advocacy Network (PDF), the Maine Child Welfare Advisory Panel (PDF), and Maine lawmakers. These recommendations align with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Child & Family Services Strategic Plan to improve policies and practices to ensure child safety.

Since Governor Mills took office, the Mills Administration has focused on supporting child protective staff by increasing their pay, by enhancing training, and by providing funding for more than 70 new staff positions to reduce their caseloads.  OCFS reestablished a partnership with the USM Cutler (formerly Muskie) School of Public Service to help comprehensively review and update policies, assist with writing new policies, and improve training opportunities for staff.  Training includes, but is not limited to, motivational interviewing and advance forensic training to improve caseworkers’ critical analysis skills. OCFS has also established workplace wellness teams, established clinical consultants in all district offices, and provided flexibility and other supports during the pandemic to further support staff.

The Mills Administration has also made systematic improvements to OCFS, including replacing the decades-old Maine Automated Child Welfare Information System with a new system, Katahdin, in January 2022 on time and on budget, streamlining work and saving caseworkers’ time. The Administration also established a Background Check Unit to improve investigations and has made major changes to the intake process, upgrading the child protective hotline system and aligning work schedules with call volume.

The Administration has also increased the number of resource (foster) families caring for Maine children by nearly 30 percent, implementing a Resource Parent Care Team, which provides services and supports to parents, and updating training for new resource parents to better prepare them for the complex work of caring for children in state custody.

The Department of Health and Human Services is also implementing its Federal Family First Prevention Services Act plan following approval in September 2021 from the Federal government. The plan will expand prevention services to help keep children and families healthy and safe and prevent the need for children to come into the care and custody of the State. Maine was the first New England state to gain approval to implement Family First and will receive approximately $2.4 million in additional Federal funding annually.

Recognizing that child safety is impacted significantly by forces outside of the child welfare system, the Mills Administration has also worked to address systemic challenges facing Maine. Upon taking office, Governor Mills prioritized responding to the opioid epidemic, expanding work to prevent drug use and enhance the availability of treatment and recovery resources – important initiatives as the pandemic has worsened the opioid epidemic both in Maine and across the country.

Governor Mills also reestablished the Children’s Cabinet, which has made significant strides in supporting early childhood development as well as successful transition of youth to jobs and education. The Governor has also directed the Department of Health and Human Services to focus on causes of child fatalities. For example, the Department tracked an increase in infant fatalities due to unsafe sleeping habits and launched a public education campaign to help parents and successfully encouraged Maine’s 26 birthing hospitals to become Safe Sleep certified, making Maine the second state in the country to achieve the milestone that protects babies from sleep-related deaths.

As part of a national awareness effort, the Governor has proclaimed (PDF) April as  Child Abuse Prevention Month in Maine – a time for us all to reflect on what more we can do to support families and protect children. Anyone concerned about child abuse or neglect should call the Department’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-452-1999. Calls may be made anonymously.