Thursday, February 3, 2022

Maine Child Welfare Advisory Panel charts a better way forward

There's some good stuff in this report.

At last: A group involved in oversight of Maine child welfare that shows a real understanding of the problems.  The Maine Child Welfare Advisory Panel (MCWAP) Citizen Review Panel has produced a report with six recommendations.  None of them is a dud and three have the potential for significant improvement.  The only problem is that the recommendations are too timid, often suggesting pilot programs for ideas that have already been proven all over the country. 

Unfortunately, when it comes to the most important recommendations, the Maine Office of Children and Family Services, while not opposing them outright, showed no enthusiasm. The OCFS response boils down to: Hey Legislature, it’s up to you, we don’t care.  That is to be expected from an agency led by Todd Landry whose callousness was on display back when he was running child welfare in Nebraska - and taking away children at what was then the highest rate in the country. He even made a sick joke at the expense of vulnerable families. 

It speaks volumes about the failure of Maine’s child welfare “ombudsman,” Christine Alberi, that even Landry thinks Alberi goes too far in recommending the removal of children from their homes. 

The existence of this report also calls into question a claim made by Alberi at a recent legislative hearing.  Alberi claimed that all the various oversight organizations concerned with child welfare in Maine are essentially on the same page. 

But even though Alberi is listed as a member of MCWAP, their full report is not on the same page as Alberi – they’re not even using the same playbook.  And while Alberi’s approach will make all Maine children less safe, if the state enacts the MCWAP recommendations it will be a first step toward making all children safer. 

Most important: High-quality legal representation 

The most important recommendation, in keeping with evidence-based best practice across the country, is for Maine to pilot legal representation as soon as OCFS starts to investigate – as opposed to only after a child has been taken away.  The recommendation is too tepid, calling only for some form of legal representation, largely just so families know what OCFS will do to them – as opposed to representation that lets families fight for their children and counter needless removal. 

What is actually needed, and what has been demonstrated to significantly reduce foster care with no compromise of safety is high-quality interdisciplinary representation, in which the family gets a defense team – a lawyer and a social worker, not to get “bad parents” off, but to offer alternatives to the cookie-cutter service plans forced on families by agencies like OCFS, plans that often make everything worse. The team also may include a parent advocate who’s been through the system herself.  This also would free up caseworkers to spend more time investigating cases, increasing the chance that they will find the very few children in real danger.  And, by the way, because foster care is so expensive and because, in many cases, the federal government will pay half the cost, this approach also saves money. Casey Family Programs has some excellent resources on this. 

Note that often these programs have the full support of state or local child welfare agencies.  But then those states and localities don’t have agencies run by Todd Landry. 


The term used in the MCWAP report is “discretionary funds” but in Alabama, where the idea came from, they’re called “flex-funds” The idea is that service providers can spend $1,000 per family on pretty much anything that family needs.  It might mean rental assistance, or a security deposit so a family can move to better housing.  It might mean funds for car repairs so a parent can get to a job.  It might mean emergency food aid, or repairs to a furnace or a refrigerator.  This is crucial for preventing families from being torn apart because of poverty.  

In Alabama this was part of a comprehensive approach to keeping families together that, unlikely as it may sound, has made this state – a poor state with serious drug use issues (sound familiar?) a national leader, relatively speaking in keeping children safe by keeping families together. Maine would do well to take a close look at all the Alabama reforms. 

Once again, however, Todd Landry’s response to “flex funds” is the equivalent of shrugging his shoulders. 

Domestic violence 

This recommendation is a fine example of how MCWAP understands concepts Alberi can’t seem to grasp: In this case the issue is the enormous harm done to children when they are taken from parents, usually mothers, accused of “failure to protect” their children from “witnessing domestic violence.”  In other words, they couldn’t get away when a husband or boyfriend started hitting them in front of the children.  When children are taken under these circumstances the trauma of removal is magnified.  One expert described such removals as “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”  

The Western New England Law Review has an excellent – and concise summary of the research in this area, and a response to all the straw-man arguments offered by those who want to continue this barbaric practice. 

Fortunately, unlike Alberi, whose own report seems to encourage this practice, MCWAP recommends that OCFS 

prioritize efforts to decrease children from being removed, or threatened to be removed, from non-offending parents for “failure to protect” the child from exposure to domestic violence committed against the non-offending parent by the offending parent.

 This is the one recommendation of the three that OCFS does not appear to be blowing off, but they still don’t get the urgency.  Their response boils down to: This is one piece of the work of a great big committee that’s working on revising stuff. 

But it’s not that hard.  The right policy concerning tearing children from battered mothers because the children “witnessed domestic violence” can be boiled down to a single word: