By Moira O’Neill
As I follow the mournful conversation about poor little Marissa K., who died at the brutal hands of her parents in Stockton Springs recently, I notice no one is turning to Maine’s Child Welfare Services ombudsman for answers. In fact, it appears no one is even aware Christine Alberi exists.
Established in 2001 by MRSA §4087-A, the ombudsman is an independent agency authorized to investigate complaints about child welfare services. The ombudsman is empowered with unfettered access to information about children and the performance of the child welfare agency, DHHS. The law requires the ombudsman must report annually on its findings and make recommendations to the governor and the legislature for policy change and service improvements.
This is a strong position with potential to ensure the care and safety of children. There are now only about 13 states with ombudsman or child advocate offices as powerfully endowed. Historically, Maine had an ombudsman for children much earlier than other states. But it fell out of favor and the position seemed to dissolve for a number of years. Then Logan M. was found suffocated with duct tape and restrained to a high chair in her foster mother’s basement. Shortly after her death, the Maine State Legislature entertained no less than 14 bills related to child abuse and neglect. The bills were consolidated into one House Paper 1385, which created a 12-member Committee to Review the Child Protective System. The “Ombudsman Program” was one of the chief outcomes of their work.
There are two flaws in Maine’s statute that hamper the ombudsman’s ability to make a difference. First is the manner in which the ombudsman is appointed: by the governor. That creates an inherent threat to independence. Second, with all the access to information the ombudsman has, there are restrictions under MRSA §4008, subsection 4 that limit ability to disclose confidential information.
The Joint Standing Committee on Health and Human Services is the oversight committee for the Ombudsman Program. Yet I hear legislators lamenting that the governor does not allow agency heads to speak with them. Is that the case for the Child Welfare Services ombudsman? Has the committee called upon her for information? They can help her by repairing the flaws in her statue. Ombudsman positions should be carefully vetted. Generally, a bipartisan oversight committee entertains applications and either appoints or provides a select number of approved candidates to the governor from which to choose. This minimizes political influence and threats to independence. Moving the position out of the executive branch and over to the legislative branch would help too. Next, the ombudsman should be given authority to disclose otherwise confidential information when it is in the public’s interest. It is in the public’s interest to hear evidence of a child protection system being poorly resourced and failing.
It’s ironic. Recently I drove from my home in Surry through Stockton Springs to get to my new job as New Hampshire’s first child advocate. Was Marissa being beaten as I passed through? If I had paused, would I have heard her cries? In my first 30 days of service to New Hampshire, I have already met with legislators to educate them about critical resource needs for the child welfare agency. A recent tragic death of our own has underscored inadequacies. I made that known. There are four New Hampshire bills aimed at increasing funding for prevention services and hiring more caseworkers. I am optimistic that even with a tight budget, the children will be heard, through me. The Maine Legislature needs to step up and give voice to tortured children through stronger authority for the Child Welfare Services ombudsman. It’s a matter of life and death.
Moira O’Neill of Surry and Concord, N.H., is the director of the state of New Hampshire’s Office of the Child Advocate.