BBC: US bishop resigns amid abuse cover-up accusations

Bishop Richard Malone in 2006 Richard Malone has been accused of mishandling complaints of abuse

The Vatican has announced the resignation of a US bishop who faced widespread criticism for his handling of sexual abuse claims.

Bishop Richard J Malone of New York state’s Buffalo oversaw one of the country’s most scandal-hit dioceses.

It is facing more than 200 lawsuits and an FBI investigation.

In a statement, Mr Malone said that “after much prayer and discernment” he had decided the diocese would be better served by a new bishop.

At 73, he is leaving earlier than the 75-year mark that is the mandatory age for bishops to offer their retirement.

“As you are well aware, we have faced tremendous turmoil over the past year-and-a-half,” Mr Malone said in the statement.

“Some have attributed this to my own shortcomings, but the turmoil also reflects the culmination of systemic failings over many years in the worldwide handling of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy.”

Mr Malone was accused of cover-ups and faced embarrassing leaks.

One contained Mr Malone’s interactions with Church lawyers which appeared to try and limit the damage of abuse allegations.

Secret audio recordings this year suggested Bishop Malone was worried a scandal involving sexual harassment of a seminarian by a pastor “could be the end of me as bishop”.

Another leak showed that he was hesitant about removing a priest whom he referred to as a “sick puppy”.

‘Healing and renewal’

The diocese had avoided any major scandals until 2018 when complaints of abuse started emerging.

In March of that year, Mr Malone released a document showing 42 priests who had been accused of sexual abuse, mostly from past decades.

But his former assistant said an earlier draft contained upwards of 100 names.

A recent poll conducted by The Buffalo News suggested that 86% of local Catholics wanted the bishop to go. Fewer than 3% of those surveyed said he should stay on.

A petition signed by more than 12,000 people called for his departure.

“I have concluded after much prayer and discernment that the spiritual welfare of the people of the Diocese of Buffalo will be better served by a new bishop who perhaps is better able to bring about the reconciliation, healing and renewal that is so needed,” Mr Malone said.

Mr Malone will be replaced on a temporary basis by Albany’s bishop, Edward B Scharfenberger.

“I will be doing a lot of listening and learning,” the new bishop said in a statement.

Jeffrey Epstein ‘Suicide’ : US attorney general blames ‘screw-ups’ for suicide

William BarrUS Attorney General William Barr has called the death of paedophile Jeffrey Epstein “a perfect storm of screw-ups”.

In an interview with AP News, Mr Barr said the jailhouse suicide, which came as Epstein awaited trial, was due to a “series” of mistakes.

His comments come after two guards who were responsible for Epstein were charged with falsifying prison records.

Lawyers for Epstein’s victims are urging Prince Andrew, a longtime friend of Epstein, to speak to US police.

The US attorney general said he had personally reviewed CCTV footage that confirmed nobody entered the area were Epstein was detained on the night he died.

“I can understand people who immediately, whose minds went to sort of the worst-case scenario because it was a perfect storm of screw-ups,” Mr Barr said in an interview as he flew to the US state of Montana for an event on Thursday.

Epstein, a wealthy financier who partied with the rich and famous, died in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center while awaiting trial on charges of sexually abusing girls as young as 14.

Earlier this week, two guards tasked with watching over Epstein’s jail unit were charged with sleeping and browsing the internet during their shift as Epstein died.

Officers Tova Noel and Michael Thomas were supposed to check on Epstein every 30 minutes. According to an indictment, the guards had not done their 03:00 or 05:00 checks.

Epstein was placed on suicide watch after he was found on 23 July on his cell floor with bruises on his neck.

He was taken off suicide watch about a week before his death, though kept on a heightened watch that required him to have a cellmate.

Prince Andrew: Epstein ‘a constant sore in the family’

But his cellmate was transferred on 9 August to another prison a day before Epstein’s death, which a medical examiner ruled to be suicide by hanging.

Mr Barr, who leads the US Department of Justice, said: “I think it was important to have a roommate in there with him and we’re looking into why that wasn’t done, and I think every indication is that was a screw-up.

“The systems to assure that was done were not followed.”

He added that New York prosecutors who are continuing to investigate Epstein’s crimes “say there is good progress being made” in the case.

“And I’m hopeful in a relatively short time there will be tangible results,” he continued.

Executors of Epstein’s estimated $577m (£450m) estate are seeking a judge’s approval to create a fund to settle claims by his victims in civil cases.

Jeffrey Epstein was charged with sexually abusing dozens of girls

Meanwhile, victims of Epstein are calling for Prince Andrew, a former friend of Epstein, to submit to an FBI interview.

The Duke of York announced on Wednesday he was stepping back from royal duties amid the fallout from his recent BBC Newsnight interview.

One of Epstein’s accusers, Virginia Giuffre, has claimed she was forced to have sex with the duke three times.

Prince Andrew has “categorically” denied it.

Presentational grey line

Prince Andrew & the Epstein Scandal: The Newsnight Interview was shown on BBC Two on 16 November 2019 and can be seen on BBC iPlayer in the UK. The full interview can also be seen on YouTube.

Can we still believe William Barr?

Prince Andrew stepping back from royal duties

Prince Andrew: Epstein ‘a constant sore in the family’

The Duke of York says he is stepping back from royal duties because the Jeffrey Epstein scandal has become a “major disruption” to the Royal Family.

Prince Andrew, 59, said he had asked the Queen for permission to withdraw for the “foreseeable future”.

He said he deeply sympathised with sex offender Epstein’s victims and everyone who “wants some form of closure”.

The duke has faced a growing backlash following a BBC interview about his friendship with the US financier.

In a statement, he said: “I continue to unequivocally regret my ill-judged association with Jeffrey Epstein.

“His suicide has left many unanswered questions, particularly for his victims, and I deeply sympathise with everyone who has been affected and wants some form of closure.

“I can only hope that, in time, they will be able to rebuild their lives.”

He added that he was “willing to help any appropriate law enforcement agency with their investigations, if required”.

BBC royal correspondent Jonny Dymond said the move was “a big step” and was “pretty much without precedent in modern times”.

He said it showed a realisation that the interview had “upset a lot of people”, adding: “It was more than just bad publicity for Prince Andrew, it was clearly damaging the wider institution of the Royal Family.”

Earlier, a letter written to the Times newspaper by Buckingham Palace cast doubt on when the duke first met Epstein.

The 2011 letter says they met in the early 1990s, not in 1999 as Prince Andrew said in his BBC interview.

The letter was published after the Times reported on the existence of a photo of the prince with 17-year-old Virginia Giuffre, then known as Roberts, who would later testify that she had been forced to have sex with him.

The duke has always denied any form of sexual contact or relationship with her.

Prince Andrew with Virginia Giuffre, and Ghislaine Maxwell standing behind, in early 2001 (said to have been taken at Maxwell’s London home)The duke was pictured with Ms Giuffre in Ghislaine Maxwell’s London home in 2001

In his interview with the BBC’s Newsnight on Saturday, the duke said he met Epstein “through his girlfriend back in 1999” – a reference to Ghislaine Maxwell, who had been a friend of Prince Andrew since she was at university.

The duke said he could not recall ever meeting Ms Giuffre and recalled that he went to Pizza Express in Woking and then returned home the night she claims they first met.

He sought to cast doubt on her testimony that he was “profusely sweating” in a nightclub, saying that a medical condition at the time meant he could not perspire.

The duke said meeting Epstein for a final time in 2010 was “the wrong decision”, but said the “opportunities I was given to learn” about business meant he did not regret the friendship.

Prince Andrew, left, and Jeffrey Epstein in New York's Central ParkThe prince said he regretted this 2010 meeting with Epstein

The duke’s website says he carries out official duties for the Queen, focusing on promoting economic growth and skilled job creation.

Over the past two months he has carried out overseas engagements in Australia, United Arab Emirates and Thailand.

BT became the latest in a series of organisations to distance themselves from Prince Andrew, following the interview.

In a statement, the firm said it had been working with iDEA – which helps people develop digital, business and employment skills – since 2017 but “our dealings have been with its executive directors not its patron, the Duke of York”.

“In light of recent developments we are reviewing our relationship with the organisation and hope that we might be able to work further with them, in the event of a change in their patronage,” a spokeswoman said.

Standard Chartered Bank and KPMG also announced they were withdrawing support for the duke’s business mentoring initiative Pitch@Palace. Sources told the BBC the decisions were made before the interview.

Four Australian universities also said they would not be continuing their involvement in Pitch@Palace Australia.

Prince Andrew cancelled a planned visit to flood-hit areas of Yorkshire on Tuesday, the Sun newspaper reported.

Prince Andrew & the Epstein Scandal: The Newsnight Interview was shown on BBC Two on 16 November 2019 and can be seen on BBC iPlayer in the UK. The full interview can also be seen on YouTube.

Prince Andrew: Standard Chartered bank cuts ties with duke’s scheme

Prince Andrew

Standard Chartered has become the second corporate partner to sever ties with the Duke of York’s business mentoring initiative, Pitch@Palace.

The bank joined accountancy firm KPMG in pulling support for the scheme.

It said it was not renewing its sponsorship for “commercial reasons”.

Several businesses and universities are reviewing their association with Prince Andrew following a BBC interview about his links to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Sources have told the BBC the decisions by Standard Chartered and KPMG were made before the interview.

‘Very serious questions’

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn were asked about whether Prince Andrew was “fit for purpose” during their head-to-head debate on ITV on Tuesday evening.

The Labour leader said there were “very, very serious questions that must be answered and nobody should be above the law”.

The prime minister said: “I think all our sympathies should be, obviously, with the victims of Jeffrey Epstein and the law must certainly take its course.”

Boris Johnson says monarchy “beyond reproach”

In his Newsnight interview, broadcast on Saturday, the Queen’s third child said he still did not regret his friendship with US financier Epstein – who took his own life in August while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges in the US.

The interview has provoked a backlash, with businesses, charities and other institutions announcing that they were reviewing their association with the prince.

In addition to Standard Chartered and KPMG ending their support for Pitch@Palace:

  • Pharmaceuticals company AstraZeneca and Hult International Business School are reviewing their partnerships with the business scheme
  • Outward Bound, the charity the Duke of Edinburgh was patron of for 65 years, has called a board meeting to discuss the prince’s patronage
  • London Metropolitan University said it will consider the prince’s role as its patron, saying it “opposes all forms of discrimination, abuse and human trafficking”
  • University of Huddersfield students are calling for the prince to be sacked as their chancellor

On Monday, the Huddersfield students’ union panel passed a motion to lobby the prince to resign as their chancellor.

The university has since said that it listens to its students’ views and will “now be consulting with them over the coming weeks”.

Prince Andrew on Epstein: ‘There was no indication, absolutely no indication’

The duke has stood by his decision to speak out, after critics labelled the interview a “car crash”.

But speaking on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme on Tuesday, Huddersfield student Tristan Smith criticised the prince over his friendship with Epstein.

He accused Prince Andrew of “trying to dismiss” the row and failing to recognise Epstein’s victims.

Meanwhile, a woman who has accused Epstein of sexually abusing her as a 15-year-old has urged Prince Andrew to share information about his former friend.

The accuser, identified as “Jane Doe 15”, did not accuse Prince Andrew of any wrongdoing but called on him and others to come forward and give a statement under oath.

Image caption“Jane Doe 15”, left, gave a press conference with lawyer Gloria Allred

Elsewhere, former home secretary Jacqui Smith alleged that Prince Andrew made racist comments to her during a state dinner.

“I have to say the conversation left us slack-jawed with the things that he felt it was appropriate to say,” she told the LBC election podcast.

And Rohan Silva, who was an adviser to former prime minister David Cameron, also accused the prince of using a racial slur in his presence.

A Buckingham Palace spokesman strenuously denied the claims, adding that Prince Andrew “does not tolerate racism in any form”.

There is no wholesale repudiation of Prince Andrew’s public role.

But whether as a result of the interview he gave, or because of the continuing swirl of allegations, there is a falling away of support for the prince, both corporate and political.

The former Labour lord chancellor and justice secretary, Lord Falconer, told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that he thought the time had come for Prince Andrew to step away from public duties.

Those close to Prince Andrew say that a withdrawal from public life is not under consideration.

But if support continues to seep from him, it will undermine his public position.

‘Human tragedy’

There was also further reaction to the prince’s BBC appearance.

Actress Rose McGowan – one of the most prominent figures of the #MeToo movement – told the Victoria Derbyshire programme she thought it was not a truthful interview.

“It’s also certainly not the mark of someone who is an empathetic character who cares about victims in any way,” she added.

The actress also said she wished more questions had been asked about Epstein’s alleged victims.

“We can’t forget there is human tragedy behind this… This has serious repercussions, serious ramifications and serious pain that is involved in this story.”

However, Alastair Campbell – Tony Blair’s ex-communications chief – said that although he thought the interview was a “mistake”, it was not “as bad as it is now being defined”.

Mr Campbell, who was another high-profile Briton to be named in Epstein’s 97-page “black book” of contacts, also told the Today programme that he met the financier on a visit to the US for a funeral and found him to be “a bit creepy”.

Prince Andrew’s BBC interview followed allegations by Virginia Giuffre, known at the time as Virginia Roberts, who claims the prince had sex with her on three occasions – the first when she was aged 17.

Prince Andrew “categorically” denied having had sexual contact with her.

In an extraordinary interview, which you can watch in full on BBC iPlayer in the UK or YouTube elsewhere in the world, the duke said:

  • He had investigations carried out to establish whether a photograph of him with Ms Giuffre was faked, but they were inconclusive
  • He would testify under oath if “push came to shove” and his lawyers advised him to
  • He was unaware of an arrest warrant against Epstein when he invited him to Princess Beatrice’s 18th birthday party at Windsor Castle
  • He does not regret his friendship with Epstein because of “the opportunities I was given to learn” from him about trade and business
  • Speaking out about his relationship with the financier had become almost “a mental health issue” for him

Jeffrey Epstein guards charged with falsifying records

US financier Jeffrey Epstein appears in a photograph taken for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services' sex offender registry on 28 March, 2017

Jeffrey Epstein was charged with sexually abusing dozens of girls

Two prison guards who were on duty on the night of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein’s death have been charged with falsifying records.

They are accused of failing to check in on him every 30 minutes and fabricating log entries to show they had.

Epstein hanged himself in jail in August while awaiting trial on federal sex-trafficking charges.

The charges against the two guards are the first to arise from a criminal inquiry into his death.

Epstein had pleaded not guilty to sexually abusing dozens of girls, some as young as 14.

The 66 year old was already a convicted sex offender, having been jailed in Florida in 2008 for procuring a minor for prostitution.

What are the two guards accused of?

They were supposed to check on Epstein every 30 minutes on the night of his death. He had been taken off suicide watch after a previous suspected attempt to take his own life and was alone in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York.

But attorney Geoffrey Berman said the two guards had “repeatedly failed to conduct mandated checks on inmates, and lied on official forms to hide their dereliction”.

The guards were named in a statement by the Southern District of New York Attorney’s Office on Tuesday as correctional officers Tova Noel and Michael Thomas, aged 31 and 41 respectively.

For “substantial portions” of their shifts, they “sat at their desk, browsed the internet, and moved around the common area”, the statement said. They then signed “false certifications” showing that they had conducted counts of inmates.

Both guards have been charged with “making false records and conspiring to make false records and to defraud the United States”.

“We allege these officers falsified records to create the appearance they were following those protocols. The security risks created by this type of behaviour are immense,” FBI assistant director William Sweeney said in the statement.

Surveillance footage showed that no other people had entered the area where Epstein was held that evening, the statement added.

Both guards were previously reported to have been working overtime shifts on the night of Epstein’s death.

US Attorney General William Barr ordered their suspension in August after the FBI opened an investigation.

Federal prosecutors later offered the guards a plea bargain but they turned it down, according to the Associated Press news agency.

Who was Jeffrey Epstein and what was he charged with?

New York-born Epstein worked as a teacher before moving into finance. Prior to the criminal cases against him, he was best known for his wealth and high-profile connections.

Jane Doe 15: “Epstein wielded great villainous power”

He was often seen socialising with the rich and powerful, including US President Donald Trump, former President Bill Clinton and the UK’s Prince Andrew.

Epstein was accused of paying girls under the age of 18 to perform sex acts at his Manhattan and Florida mansions between 2002 and 2005. He was arrested on 6 July.

He avoided similar charges in a controversial deal in 2008, pleading guilty to a lesser charge of soliciting and procuring a minor for prostitution.

Presentational grey line

You might also be interested in:

Prince Andrew on Epstein: “There was no indication, absolutely no indication”

Prince Andrew: Royalty has failed Epstein’s accusers, says lawyer

download (7).jpg

The Duke of York should apologise for his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, a lawyer for the convicted sex offender’s accusers has said.

Spencer Kuvin, who represents several unnamed alleged victims, said “royalty has failed them”.

He called Prince Andrew’s interview with BBC Newsnight on Saturday “sad” and “depressing”.

The prince has stood by his decision to take part, despite critics describing it as a “car crash”.

Amid the backlash, Prince Andrew is now facing renewed calls to tell US authorities about his friendship with US financier Epstein – who, at the age of 66, took his own life while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges in the US.

The duke has been facing questions over his ties to Epstein for several years.

On Monday, Mr Kuvin told the Today programme: “It was depressing that he [Prince Andrew] really did not acknowledge the breadth of his friendship with this despicable man and apologise.

“The mere fact that he was friends with a convicted sex offender and chose to continue his relationship with him – it just shows a lack of acknowledgement of the breadth of what this man [Epstein] did to these girls.”

Prince Andrew, left, and Jeffrey Epstein in New York's Central ParkPrince Andrew said this meeting with Epstein in 2010 was to end their relationship

In the interview with Newsnight, Prince Andrew – the Queen’s third child – said he never suspected Epstein’s criminal behaviour during visits to his three homes.

But Mr Kuvin said he did “not think there was any way” the prince could have avoided seeing what was going on, “with young girls being shuttled in and out of those homes”.

Mr Kuvin said the focus of Epstein’s accusers had now turned to potential co-conspirators.

It has led to questions about the role Epstein’s former girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, may have played in procuring underage girls for the financier.

Ms Maxwell denies any wrongdoing.

Lawyer Lisa Bloom – who represents five other Epstein accusers – joined the calls for Prince Andrew to be interviewed by US authorities following his BBC interview.

She told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme: “I think he’s made things worse for himself in this interview and I think it’s more likely the authorities are going to want to speak to him now – and they should want to.”

Lisa Bloom
Lawyer Lisa Bloom has also questioned why Prince Andrew did not apologise about his friendship with Epstein

Gloria Allred – another lawyer, also representing one of Epstein’s accusers – told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “Now he’s been in the court of public opinion, he should testify to the FBI.”

She said she did not know how the prince “could have not known that there were underage girls” present during his visits to Epstein’s homes in New York, Palm Beach and the Virgin Islands.

Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, said Prince Andrew should do whatever he can to help Epstein’s victims.

He said: “By saying what he knows of the time that he spent with his former friend, can only be the right thing to do.”

In the Newsnight interview, Prince Andrew said he will testify under oath “if push came to shove” and his lawyers advised him to.

It comes as the prince continues to face heavy criticism for the interview, which many royal commentators branded a PR disaster.

University of Huddersfield students will discuss a motion to put pressure on the duke to resign as chancellor later. In response, the university said Prince Andrew’s “enthusiasm for innovation and entrepreneurship is a natural fit” with its work.

Prince Andrew with Virginia Giuffre, and Ghislaine Maxwell standing behind, in early 2001 (said to have been taken at Maxwell’s London home)The duke was pictured with his accuser in Ghislaine Maxwell’s London home in 2001

In his BBC interview, Prince Andrew “categorically” denied having any sexual contact with Virginia Giuffre, known at the time as Virginia Roberts.

The first occasion, she said, took place when she was aged 17.

People close to Prince Andrew said he wanted to address the issues head-on and did so with “honesty and humility” in speaking to Newsnight.

In a lengthy interview, which UK viewers can watch in full on BBC iPlayer or on YouTube elsewhere in the world, the prince said that:

  • On the date Virginia Giuffre says he had sex with her – 10 March, 2001, he had taken his daughter to Pizza Express in Woking for a party before spending the night at home
  • He dismissed claims he was sweating profusely because he had a “peculiar medical condition” meaning he cannot sweat, caused by an overdose of adrenaline in the Falklands War
  • He had commissioned investigations into whether a photograph of him with Ms Giuffre had been faked, but they were inconclusive
  • Speaking out about his relationship with the financier had become almost “a mental health issue” for him
  • He would testify under oath about his relationship with Ms Giuffre if “push came to shove”, and his lawyers advised him to
  • He was unaware of an arrest warrant against Epstein when he invited the financier to Princess Beatrice’s 18th birthday party at Windsor Castle
  • He did not regret his friendship with Epstein because of “the opportunities I was given to learn” from him about trade and business

Maine foster children linger in state care longer than most states

Extended stays – the state’s 21-month-long median duration is the nation’s third-highest – contribute to worse outcomes for children, research suggests.

Amanda Sweden moved into her first foster home at age 9 – a yellow ranch in Bradford –  scared and wishing that she would soon reunite with her mother. Sweden said state child protection workers told her that would happen within days or weeks.

Instead, Sweden spent the rest of her childhood in foster homes, group homes or homeless. At the age of 16, she ran away from a group home twice.

“In foster care, no space is ever yours. It’s always someone else’s,” said Sweden, 28. “By the end, foster care to me was the prison, and I would rather be homeless than be there.”

Sweden, of Bangor, is not alone in spending a long time in foster care.

In Maine, the median stay in the foster care system is 21 months at the time of exiting the system, third-highest among all the states and well above the national median of 14 months, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data from 2017, the most recent year available. Maine trailed only Illinois and the District of Columbia, where the median stays are 33 months and 24 months, respectively.

At the other end of the spectrum, in New Mexico the median stay in foster care is 5.6 months, and in several other states the median time children spend is less than a year.

Research shows that extended time in foster care produces worse outcomes for children, including increased risk of behavioral and mental health problems, homelessness and poor school performance, according to Casey Family Programs, a national nonprofit think tank. Reunification with parents, when it can be done safely, is best for children.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the foster care system, prioritizes family reunification, and officials point to recent gains that have been made in reuniting families sooner or, in some cases, finding adoption placements.

But the state faces enormous challenges. Reports of child abuse and neglect have escalated, and the opioid epidemic has pushed more children into the foster care system at a time when the number of foster homes has declined.

“This is not going to be a quick fix, as our resources had become very thin,” said Chris Bicknell, executive director of New Beginnings in Lewiston, a nonprofit that serves homeless youth and helps foster children who are aging out of the system. “They have to rebuild a department that had been demolished from the inside out during the LePage administration.”

Sweden, who entered the foster care system because of her mother’s drug use and legal problems, wouldn’t share a home with her mother again until after she turned 16.

At her first foster home, she cried herself to sleep every night and kept a photo of her mother with her at all times. She remembers the hunger – the intense cravings emanating from the pit of her stomach when her foster family refused to feed her, which was often.

If she didn’t finish her dinner because she was a picky eater – and she didn’t like meatloaf and squash, among other dishes – her foster mother withheld food. Or if she broke a minor rule, like missing curfew by a few minutes or arguing with other kids, she knew that meant she would go hungry.

“We weren’t troublemakers, but any little thing we did wrong, we weren’t allowed to eat the next day,” Sweden said. “Sometimes we went days without eating and would get so hungry we would throw up bile. Then (my foster mother) would get angry with us and give us a piece of toast.”

One time at the home, Sweden saw other hungry foster children sneaking into the kitchen in the middle of the night to scrounge for food. The next morning, her foster mother had locked the kitchen cabinets.

The Bradford home was run by a now-deceased senior couple fostering several children, Sweden said, and it was one of eight foster homes or group homes she lived in before aging out of the system at age 18.

PERSISTENT PROBLEM

The length of time in foster care has been a persistent issue in Maine, spanning Democratic and Republican administrations. In 2008, Maine had the fourth-highest median time spent in foster care of all states, at 21.7 months.

Child welfare experts say limiting the amount of time in foster care is, in general, best for children.

“Longer stays in foster care increase the chance of multiple placements, which are associated with problems of attachment, poor school performance and behavioral difficulties. Those who stay in care the longest are at risk of becoming one of more than 20,000 young people who leave the foster care system each year with no achieved permanency outcome, at risk of homelessness, unemployment, pregnancy, and poor educational achievement,” according to the Seattle-based Casey Family Programs, which advocates for public policy that benefits at-risk children.

The longer a child stays in foster care, the chance of being reunified with the biological family plummets. One quarter of foster care placements that lasted 25 months or longer were reunified, compared to 54 percent who were reunified within one year, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Several factors may be contributing to the lengthy stays in Maine’s foster care system. Staffing levels in the state Office of Child and Family Services dropped significantly during the LePage administration, leaving fewer caseworkers to handle the job of assessing abuse and neglect cases, placing children and evaluating whether reunification was appropriate.

The opioid crisis has afflicted thousands of Maine families, forcing intervention by public officials to protect children from abuse or neglect while their parents struggle with the disorder and seek recovery in treatment programs.

Bottlenecks can occur in the foster care system, such as in the courts and because there’s a shortage of foster parents.

Determining why Maine children have historically spent so much time in foster care is difficult because the underlying reasons may change over time, said Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts in Lewiston, a nonprofit that works closely with Maine DHHS on child welfare programs.

It’s not just the number of caseworkers but what they are working on. If cases that were once considered low-risk are elevated to middle- or high-risk, that could take more time away from busy caseworkers who otherwise would be working on a reunification, he said.

Yardley said if a child is placed in a stable foster home, caseworkers may put those situations in the “low priority” pile because they have to attend to emergency situations. That could make the reunifications take longer.

And many of the cases are judgment calls, trying to assess the stability of the parents for reunification.

“It’s not a science; it’s an art,” said Yardley, a former DHHS caseworker. “There are so many variables, and it’s so complicated, that it’s hard to draw any sweeping conclusions.”

A BALANCING ACT

Melissa Hackett, outreach associate for the Maine Children’s Alliance, said many reasons can go into why the trend is long-running, such as a lack of prevention programs or access to substance use treatment that would give parents a chance to recover and reunite with their children. Without treatment, the parents may never stabilize or take longer to get to the point where the children could return.

“Ideally, children would never get removed from the home,” Hackett said. “If they must be removed, they should be reunited with family as quickly as possible, when it’s safe.” The next best option is for foster children to be adopted, if reunification isn’t possible, Hackett said.

The median time in state care is only one of a number of metrics used to evaluate the functioning of a foster care system, such as the strength of prevention programs and what percentage of children enter foster care, which in Maine, at 3.5 percent, is about the national average. In one area – placement with relatives – Maine does better than the national average, with 42 percent of foster children placed with a relative compared to the national average of 32 percent. Casey Family Programs has reported that research shows kinship placements are superior to those with non-kin foster parents.

Also, in recent years, the percentage of Maine children who re-enter the foster care system within a year after being reunited with their parents is among the best in the nation – between 3 and 5 percent. The national average is about 12 percent.

Yardley said it’s a balancing act, weighing whether the parents are stable enough for a child to return versus the harm of longer stays in foster care.

“There’s always these competing struggles,” Yardley said. “Children do better if they are able to reunite with their family, even if there’s some dysfunction in the family.”

Sweden said she should have had a chance to reunite with her mother much sooner than age 16.

“She has always treated me like I’m her favorite person,” Sweden said.

Dorothy Sweden, Amanda’s mom, said she feels bad her daughter went hungry and had traumatic experiences in foster care. She said she had problems with drugs, and was in jail for nine months, but she improved her life and should have gotten a chance to have her children returned.

“Nobody loves a child like their mother,” Dorothy Sweden said.

Yardley said extended time in foster care can weaken the bonds between parent and child and make reunification more difficult.

Some young Mainers had relatively good experiences in foster care.

Stephanie Gerard, 27, of Canaan said when her mother died when she was 15, she was without a family and ended up in foster care. In the first two placements, there were some personality conflicts, but the third foster family was “extremely supportive” during her last two years of high school at Erskine Academy.

“They took me in with open arms. They told me that you are part of this family now and not a foster family. They treated me the same as they would their own daughter,” said Gerard, who will enter the nursing program at Kennebec Valley Community College next year.

Although long stays in the foster care system are a chronic problem, the state has an array of programs to help teens when they age out of that system. This includes programs that help pay for higher education, rental assistance and day-to-day expenses until age 21 or 22.

There are also state caseworkers devoted to helping young adults who aged out of foster care become independent, teaching them things that they might not have learned in a foster home, such as balancing a checkbook or applying for a driver’s license.

“I feel like the world opens up to you once you age out,” said Mariah Knight, 22, a Westbrook native who entered foster care at age 12.

MORE DEMANDS ON SYSTEM

While family reunification when safe is a goal of the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, many challenges persist.

DHHS is hiring 33 more caseworkers, and Todd Landry, the new director of the Office of Child and Family Services, is advocating for doubling that number. If approved, that would bring the total to 380 caseworkers. The agency is also hiring 29 additional support staff and managers.

Yet while the state is ramping up hiring, reports of suspected abuse and neglect are climbing – from 7,463 in 2016 to 11,831 in 2018.

Also, more children are in state care, increasing from 1,724 in July 2018 to 2,195 in September 2019, according to DHHS. Nationally, the number of foster children declined slightly in 2018, from 441,000 in 2017 to 437,000 in 2018, the latest year for which national statistics were available.

Child welfare experts attribute the increase in abuse reports to more awareness after the highly publicized abuse deaths of two girls, 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs in 2018 and Kendall Chick, 4, of Wiscasset in 2017.

Meanwhile, there aren’t enough foster families for placements. The number of households that have signed up to be foster families has declined from 1,621 in 2015 to 1,536 this year.

Bette Hoxie, of Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine, an Orono nonprofit, said most foster parents are good people who want to help children, but the system has become overwhelmed with demand for services. There are not enough foster families and caseworkers have too many cases, causing bottlenecks and frustration for people trying to help children who have suffered from trauma.

“Most people are in it for the right reasons,” Hoxie said of foster parents and herself, a long-time foster parent. “A very small percentage are found to have abused or neglected a child.”

Jackie Farwell, DHHS spokeswoman, said the department is working to increase the number of foster families willing to take on teenagers and other difficult placements.

“While children of all ages in out-of-home care need support, there is a particularly urgent need for families who can parent adolescents and teenagers, sibling groups with more than two children, and infants born affected by drugs or alcohol,” Farwell said in an email response to questions.

Farwell also said that, despite the increased demand, the agency is making strides.

“The increased workload within Office of Child and Family Services has challenged our staff, but we remain dedicated to the safety of the children in the department’s custody. OCFS’ data is indicative of this commitment, with 31 percent of children reaching permanency within 12 months of entering state custody as of September 2019. That number was 29 percent in September of last year. Despite the increase in the number of referrals, assessments, and children in care, OCFS has made gains in this area.”

Landry, the office director, is also proposing to revive a near-dormant family therapy initiative as a prevention program to help head off problems before they become acute.