A Maine state medical examiner who fancies himself a comedian. What could possibly go wrong?
Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, Maine’s embattled chief medical examiner, has for the better part of a year been under the microscope for all kinds of eyebrow-raising activities.
But revelations last week go beyond previous questions about Flomenbaum’s competence and his moonlighting as a private consultant in addition to his day job.
Now we learn he makes jokes, on the internet, about dead people.
“It’s outrageous … that he has such a callous disregard for the sanctity of what it means to hold that job,” said state Rep. Jeff Evangelos, an independent from Friendship, who has several complaints pending against Flomenbaum with the Maine Attorney General’s Office, which oversees the medical examiner.
The latest flap involves a listing for a deputy medical examiner posted on the National Association of Medical Examiners job website, among other places, in August 2017. Flomenbaum and Kirsten Figueroa, who left the AG’s office last winter to become commissioner of Maine’s Department of Administrative and Financial Services, are listed as the contacts.
The ad is pure boilerplate at first – workload, areas of responsibility, that sort of thing. But then, in a list of bullet points detailing why Maine is “an ideal environment” for a forensic pathologist, the post takes a sudden lurch into the macabre.
Calling Maine “a winter mecca” for various outdoor sports, it adds parenthetically, “translation: really short season of decomposed bodies.”
Lauding Maine’s “vast waterways and enormous coastline ideal for aquatic and marine sports,” it quips: “translation: many bodies are lost at sea or wind up in either New Hampshire or Canada.”
On our relatively small population distributed over a large area: “translation: only the bodies that really need to come in for autopsies will do so.”
If he was serious, Flomenbaum has a truly bizarre way of looking at the state that in 2018 paid him just under $280,000 in salary and benefits to pick up where death, often violently or tragically, leaves off.
And if he was joking, well, maybe the man needs a long sabbatical.
Some undoubtedly will dismiss the ad as gallows humor, that built-in defense mechanism that serves as an emotional shield for those who regularly deal with horrendous situations. But a wisecrack in the relative privacy of a police station or trauma center or, for that matter, autopsy room, is one thing – a momentary stress reliever intended for the benefit of a small, sympathetic audience.
A posting on the internet? That’s public. That sticks around. That’s a statement to the world about who you are and how you view work that, by any societal measure, is no joke.
“They can have their funny moments whenever,” Evangelos said. “But this was the job posting for the deputy medical examiner. Gimme a break.”
The medical examiner’s office declined a Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald request for an interview on Friday. The AG’s office did not respond to a request for an interview. Contacted via his cellphone on Saturday, Flomenbaum refused to speak on the record.
And from Gov. Janet Mills, on whose watch as attorney general the ad went out, we got only this from spokesman Scott Ogden on Friday: The governor “has a great deal of respect for and confidence in Dr. Flomenbaum and his office.”
This is the same medical examiner who 12 years ago was fired in Massachusetts by then-Gov. Deval Patrick after an investigation found that state’s medical examiner’s office “on the verge of collapse.” They’d even lost track of a body.
The same medical examiner who, as part of his Lincoln Forensics LLC consulting gig, was found “not credible” as a defense witness in a 2016 Connecticut manslaughter trial involving the fatal beating of a 3-year-old girl. The prosecutor, who won the case, went so far as to alert then-AG Mills that Maine might want to disclose Flomenbaum’s credibility problem when he testifies in court cases here.
It’s the same medical examiner whose last-minute change of opinion on the angle of a gunshot caused a mistrial last February in the murder trial of Noah Gaston. Fortunately, following a retrial that proceeded without incident, a jury on Friday found Gaston guilty of murdering his 34-year-old wife, Alicia.
And it’s the same medical examiner who cited “acute and chronic alcoholism” as contributing to the heart-and-diabetes-related death of Appalachian Trail hiker Jeff Aylward, 63, who was found dead near his Rangeley campsite in August after having no contact with his family for 13 days.
Late Friday, under pressure from Aylward’s widow, Ann, and two private experts who said the alcohol in Jeff Aylward’s system was actually the result of the body’s decay, Flomenbaum quietly removed any mention of alcoholism from his report. Under “major findings,” he included “moderate postmortem putrefaction,” which is known to produce sometimes high levels of alcohol in the body as it decomposes.
Any one of these flubs would be enough to wonder if Maine is getting its money’s worth from this guy. Taken together, it’s hard to grasp how the normally no-nonsense Gov. Mills still has “a great deal of respect for and confidence in” him.
Now, on top of it all, we discover that Flomenbaum likes Maine for its “short season on decomposed bodies” and sees our rivers and bays as conduits for whisking our corpses to other jurisdictions.
“Flomenbaum has no credibility left, yet it is to him who our prosecutors look to for ‘evidence’ that ends up imprisoning Mainers,” Evangelos said in an email on Saturday. “It’s beyond belief and I expect his lack of credibility will continue to plague our court proceedings.”
Contacted Saturday at her home in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Ann Aylward said she had not yet heard about the medical examiner’s ghoulish job posting. After hearing it read to her, she said she was disgusted but not surprised.
Aylward said she felt early on after her husband’s death that Flomenbaum had no interest in hearing her objections to the alcohol finding – because of his diabetes, she has maintained, Jeff Aylward stopped drinking alcohol 15 years ago.
Her inability to get Flomenbaum on the phone – all of her dealings, she said, were with a subordinate – eventually convinced Aylward that she’d only succeed at clearing her husband’s name if she took on the medical examiner publicly.
Apparently, it worked.
“He never picked up the phone. He never spoke to us. He never even made the attempt,” Alyward said, adding that the not-so-funny job posting only confirms to her that “something’s not right” with Flomenbaum.
“If that’s how he has to find his peace in the work that he does, he needs to get out of that work,” she said. “He needs to get out of that job.”
BY ROB WOLFE, STAFF WRITER, Portland Press Herald
An Augusta police officer on Sunday morning shot and nonfatally injured a man police say was wanted on charges from the Fairfield Police Department.
Sabastian Guptill and other officers visited a house on South Belfast Avenue in Augusta, where they found 27-year-old Robert Farrington, of Augusta.
An altercation followed in which Guptill shot Farrington, who police say was wanted on charges of domestic violence and cruelty to animals.
Guptill was not injured, and Farrington was taken to the hospital, where he is in stable condition.
“Our thoughts are with everyone involved in this heartbreaking incident,” the Augusta Police Department said in a news release Sunday.
Police did not describe what led to the shooting, saying only that “an incident involving deadly force occurred.”
The department called the incident an “armed altercation,” but did not specify whether or not Farrington was armed.
Guptill is on paid administrative leave while the Maine Attorney General’s Office investigates the shooting, as is standard for use of deadly force by police.
In the past three decades, the attorney general has looked into about 150 police shootings and determined that all were justified.
A new independent panel was created this summer to investigate incidents where police use deadly force and make policy recommendations.
Maine Police Shooting Reports Archive: Deadly Force
- 8/16/2019: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Maine Game Warden in Gouldsboro on June 27, 2017
- 7/19/2019: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Maine State Police on June 7, 2017
- 1/28/2019: Report of the Attorney General’s Task Force to Review Deadly Force Incidents, 1/28/2019)
- 11/28/2018: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by York County Sheriffs on May 29, 2017 in Arundel
- 9/12/2018: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Gorham Police Chief on May 24, 2017
- 6/15/2018: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Kennebec County Deputy Sheriff on May 19, 2017 in Belgrade
- 3/30/2018: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Presque Isle Police Officer on March 17, 2017
- 3/5/2018: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Vassalboro Police Officers, State Police Lieutenant, on February 10, 2017
- 3/5/2018: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Portland Police Officer on February 18, 2017
- 1/5/2018: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Waldoboro Police Officer on January 22, 2017
- 9/22/2017: Cumberland County Deputy Sheriffs Fired in Self-defense
- 7/28/2017: Report regarding use of force event involving stolen wheel loader on Maine Turnpike
- 7/21/2017: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by State Police Trooper on August 15, 2016, in Jefferson
- 12/19/2016: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Presque Isle Police Officer on May 7, 2016, in Presque Isle
- 11/22/2016: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Westbrook Police Officer on April 2, 2016 in Westbrook
- 6/28/2016: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Caribou Police Officer on January 8, 2016
- 3/22/2016: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Bridgton Police Officer on September 23, 2015 in Naples
- 2/29/2016: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Penobscot County Deputy Sheriff on June 28, 2015 in Carmel
- 1/11/2016: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Augusta Police Officer on January 12, 2015
- 1/11/2016: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Bangor Police Officers on February 8, 2015
- 1/11/2016: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Aroostook County Deputy Sheriff and State Trooper in Smyrna on February 10, 2015
- 1/11/2016: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Piscataquis County Deputy Sheriff on March 12, 2015
- 1/11/2016: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Oxford County Deputy Sheriff on May 20, 2015
- 11/24/2015: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force
- 11/6/2015: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by Lewiston Police Officers on October 24, 2014
- 9/3/2015: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by State Police Sergeant on October 12, 2014, in Ludlow
- 6/11/2015: Report of the Attorney General on the Use of Deadly Force by State Police Troopers on September 27, 2014, in
SOUTH PORTLAND — Timothy Sheehan, police chief of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, for 10 years, will replace longtime South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins when he retires in January, City Manager Scott Morelli announced Friday.
Sheehan is an FBI-trained officer who has been with the Tewskbury Police Department for 32 years and has received numerous commendations, most notably for providing tactical support to the Boston Police Department following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Morelli said.
Sheehan will start his duties here on Jan. 13, and Googins has agreed to stay on for a week to help with the transition, Morelli said. Googins has been South Portland’s chief for 25 years, a job he took after retiring from the Portland Police Department in 1994 with 23 years of service.
Sheehan said he’s grateful to be Morelli’s top choice among 14 applicants, five of whom were interviewed.
“I plan to work tirelessly to earn the respect of the members of the department and community and I recognize I have some really big shoes to fill,” Sheehan said in a written statement. “I look forward to rolling up my sleeves … to build on the service the police department provides to the community and the trust-filled relationships that have been established.”
Morelli said a nine-member interview panel made up of municipal department heads and the city’s Civil Service Commission unanimously recommended skipping a planned second round of interviews and urged Morelli to offer the job to Sheehan immediately.
“(Googins) has helped make the South Portland Police Department the best in the state, in my opinion,” Morelli said. “The selection team was confident that Tim was the right person to succeed Chief Googins and I’m looking forward to both the stability and new ideas that he can bring to the table.”
In August, Sheehan was a finalist for a chief’s position in Palm Bay City, Florida, the Lowell Sun reported. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Springfield College and a master’s degree in criminal justice administration from Western New England College. He is a graduate of numerous leadership and management programs, including the FBI National Academy.
Last year, Sheehan served as incident commander of the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council for the four-day statewide mutual aid response to the Columbia Gas explosions and fires that shut down parts of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence after the governor declared a state of emergency.
In June, Sheehan received the Law Enforcement Exemplary Leadership Award from the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health in recognition of his involvement and collaborative efforts in addressing the opioid crisis, an issue that Googins also took steps to address in South Portland.
“I would like to thank and congratulate Chief Googins for his incredible dedication to the South Portland Police Department and community,” Sheehan said. “His forward thinking and commitment to the profession has resulted in developing a police department that is guided by the best available police principles, practices, and training that all revolve around improving the quality of life of the populations he has been entrusted to serve.”
Located near Lowell, Massachusetts, Tewksbury’s population and police department are slightly larger than South Portland’s.
Tewksbury, with more than 31,000 residents, has 79 full-time police personnel, including 62 sworn officers, nine civilian dispatchers and eight 8 civilian support staff, Morelli said. South Portland has more than 25,000 residents and 60 full-time police personnel, including 56 sworn officers, one mechanic, one animal control officer and four civilian support staff.
Morelli said he sent nine applicants to be assessed by Badgequest, the same firm that assessed candidates for Portland’s police chief search earlier this year. Five finalists were selected from that group.
“We had an excellent pool of candidates from which to choose,” Morelli said. “Despite that, Chief Sheehan still rose to the top.”
Like Googins, Sheehan’s annual salary will be $101,982, Morelli said. Sheehan and his wife are currently looking for a home to rent in South Portland.
A date for Sheehan’s swearing-in ceremony will be announced soon.
Two types of methamphetamine have found their way into Maine: on the left, a high purity crystalline form and, on the right, a pill form, photographed Friday at the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in Portland.
Highly pure crystal methamphetamine is flowing into Maine and New England at an unprecedented rate, alarming police and substance abuse recovery advocates who say the drug has contributed to added violence at Portland’s homeless shelter and an increasing number of overdose deaths statewide.
Front-line workers at the Oxford Street Shelter have in recent months seen an uptick of violent interactions with people who they suspect are using crystal meth, leading to injuries of staff and guests at the 154-bed facility. Next week, staff will receive more training to help handle the unpredictable behavior that follows methamphetamine use.
“At the shelter, we’ve seen a drastic shift over the last year,” said Aaron Guyer, Portland’s social services administrator. “What we’ve seen really is an increase of erratic and violent behavior.”
Criminal trespass notices, which can temporarily bar someone from the shelter for up to a year for breaking shelter rules, have increased 50 percent from 2018, and about half of the notices were for assault on a guest or a staffer, according to statistics released by the city.
Statewide, overdose deaths attributed to methamphetamine are also on the rise. Last year, 26 people died of methamphetamine-related overdoses, or 10 more than in 2017. In the first quarter of 2019, the latest period for which data are available, methamphetamine killed eight people and accounted for 11 percent of all drug-related deaths in that period, according to the Office of the Attorney General.
The violent outbursts that meth produces are a product of how the drug affects the body, doctors say. While heroin and fentanyl depress central nervous system and respiratory activity, methamphetamine is a powerful synthetic stimulant that rapidly produces feelings of euphoria followed by hours of energetic, obsessive behavior that can lead to hallucinations and psychosis. Users sometimes stay awake for days or weeks at a time; with extreme, long-term use of methamphetamine, drug-induced psychosis can be permanent.
“Everything is on edge and ready to go,” said Dr. Jonathan Fellers, an addiction medicine psychiatrist and medical director at Crossroads addiction treatment center who treats people with methamphetamine use disorder. “It can also lead to paranoid thinking and hallucinations, so people can misperceive what is going on around them, and maybe even act on that. People become very suspicious.”
For a 38-year-old Portland resident, Matt, methamphetamine use produced a delusion that he was doing fine and was in control of his life, when the reality was far different.
“I hadn’t worked in three months, I was about to be evicted and I lost 50 pounds,” said Matt, who asked that only his first name be used for fear he would face discrimination for his past drug use. “I could not come to grips with the truth that once I started (using) I lost my power of choice.”
Matt said his drug addiction began with pharmaceuticals that were prescribed to him by a doctor, and his first exposure to stimulants was in college, when a fraternity brother gave him Adderall, which is prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. He used it to stay awake for five days during their pledge week.
Matt said he has been trying to stay clean since a family intervention in 2010 and is currently 17 months drug-free. He came to Portland in the summer of 2018 for recovery after he overdosed on a drug cocktail that included methamphetamine, heroin and other drugs. He said he’s been able to stay sober with the help of a 12-step program and now works professionally to help other people in recovery.
There are many others like him in the state. When Matt arrived in Portland in 2018, there was no meeting in Maine for people recovering from methamphetamine addiction.
“I contacted Crystal Meth Anonymous, and they said the closest was in New Hampshire,” Matt recalled.
Now, at the Portland Recovery Community Center on Forest Avenue, the crystal meth/amphetamine meetings are the fastest-growing 12-step recovery group offered by PRCC, which often hosts meetings with 50 people, said executive director Leslie Clark.
“It’s challenging because it’s just a terrible drug,” Clark said. “The impact on people physically and on their brain, the kind of psychosis and violence is more unique.”
Besides an increase in violence at the shelter, methamphetamine use has been linked to a recent high-profile assault. In July, a 37-year-old Bridgton man was reportedly high on methamphetamine and had been awake for at least two days when he beat and stabbed a couple in their 70s inside their lakefront home, nearly killing them. Police at the time did not identify a motivation for the attack, and it was unclear whether the alleged perpetrator knew the victims.
That same month, police in Portland said a man who was high on methamphetamine was hallucinating when he jumped into Portland Harbor to “cool off” before officers wrangled him out of the water unharmed. And in June, officers seized 112 grams of the drug during a traffic stop in the Bayside neighborhood and charged a Westbrook man with felony drug possession; the same man was arrested again in July, also in Bayside, with 56 grams of meth and a loaded Glock handgun.
And last month, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency officers charged a Brunswick man with transporting 108 grams of crystal methamphetamine to Maine from Boston on an Amtrak train.
Users of the drug pay $80 to $100 per gram, according to the MDEA. That’s typically enough for someone to get high a couple of times, but everyone’s response to drugs is different. The cost is on par with other stimulants, such as crack and powder cocaine.
The crystals, which also are sold in pill form, can be crushed into powder and then snorted, smoked or injected. Users can become addicted quickly, seeking more of the drug to avoid the crash that comes when it wears off.
Police say the drug is flowing into the United States from Mexico, where drug cartels produce vast quantities using industrial-scale equipment, making a crystalline product that is more potent than that produced by the “one pot” method of making methamphetamine at home.
After the drugs are smuggled from Mexico across the Southwest border, Dominican street gangs in Boston, Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts, as well as Bridgeport, Connecticut, distribute them to midlevel dealers throughout New England, according to an annual report produced by the MDEA.
“It’s the same network, transportation and all, that brings us heroin, fentanyl and cocaine,” said MDEA director Roy McKinney. “Out West, they’ve been battling it for a long time. In New England, we’re seeing more of that over the last few years.”
As importation of the higher-quality drug from Mexico has increased, police have seen a decline in homemade meth production, in which over-the-counter cold medicine, pseudoephedrine and household chemicals are combined in a violent reaction. That method can produce about an ounce of methamphetamine at one time, McKinney said, and the quality is often lower than the Mexican cartel version.
MDEA agents responded to 126 meth labs or meth lab dump sites in 2016, the highest number recorded in a single year. In 2017, agents found 58 labs, and in 2018, the number declined to 51 labs, according to the drug agency. So far this year, MDEA agents have responded to 33 labs and are tracking toward another annual decline.
In the same period, seizures of the purer form of meth have increased. In 2017, MDEA agents initiated 103 meth-related investigations and seized 5.6 ounces of the drug, an amount smaller than a can of soda. Last year, agents initiated about the same number of investigations – 105 – but seized 9.9 pounds of methamphetamine, including a single seizure of more than 4.5 pounds.
Through the end of September of this year, MDEA agents had initiated 60 meth-related investigations and recovered 3.3 pounds of the drug, according to the agency.
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.
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.
MONTPELIER, Vt. —Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, joined members of Congress from Vermont and New Hampshire in questioning Customs and Border Protection about temporary highway checkpoints that are set up away from the Canadian border.
In a letter to Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan dated Wednesday, the lawmakers including both senators from New Hampshire and Vermont asked whether the lack of arrests from the random stops justifies what they called the harmful economic impact.
The lawmakers specifically cited a June checkpoint on Interstate 93 near Woodstock, New Hampshire, that resulted in no arrests, but caused severe traffic congestion.
They also asked about four checkpoints in South Hero, Vermont, that stopped 4,200 vehicles and resulted in one arrest for a visa overstay.
Federal law allows CBP to conduct the checkpoints within 100 miles of the international border.
CBP spokesman Michael McCarthy said the agency would respond directly to the members of Congress.