By Associated Press - Wednesday, April 14, 2021

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - A Maine lawmaker wants to make the state agency that serves children a separate, cabinet-level department.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, introduced a bill that would remove the Office of Children and Family Services from the Department of Health and Human Services and make it a separate agency with a commissioner nominated by the governor and approved by the state Senate, the Portland Press Herald reported on Tuesday.

Speaking on Tuesday before the senate Health and Human Services Committee, which is considering several bills this week related to child protection, Diamond said DHHS, “is so large and complex and has so many serious challenges that it cannot properly oversee the many needs of the OCFS, at least to the level required to fully protect children in their care.”

The director of the department’s Office of Child and Family Services, Todd Landry, opposed the move in a letter.

“While the structure this bill proposes would likely bring more attention to the vital activities related to child and family services, the costs and drawbacks outweigh any benefits that might be derived from this change,” Landry wrote, according to the newspaper.

Advocates also testified at the hearing, with some supporting the creation of a new department.

“Having a children’s department, a Cabinet-level children’s department, might be the best opportunity to really focus on kids and have somebody look at kids from an overall systemic point of view and stop some of the sad things that are happening,” said Nancy Cronin, the executive director of the Maine Developmental Disability Council.

The deaths of two children in 2017 and 2018 prompted reviews, investment and legislation to overhaul the state’s child protective services. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services was accused of missing or ignoring warning signs before the deaths of 4-year-old Kendall Chick and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy.

In 2018, lawmakers passed a bill that provided funding for a new computer and software systems for DHHS, pay increases for case workers and foster families, funding to hire new case workers and new policies aimed at keeping children with family members as much as possible.

A legislative oversight body found in 2019 that the work load of child welfare case workers had spiked suddenly under the policy changes, eventually prompting the hiring of more case workers. The oversight body’s report also said a lack of mental health and addiction services in the state were complicating efforts to protect children.

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