Maine Senate votes to create separate little one welfare company
The Maine Senate on Thursday voted to create a separate state agency with responsibility for child welfare in response to several high-profile deaths from abuse and ongoing concerns about the treatment of cases.
The Maine Department of Health has implemented numerous reforms in recent years, including hiring dozens of clerks and expanding training, but Senator Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said such reforms had been promised for decades but yielded little Progress.
“This is still a serious problem,” said Diamond, the sponsor of the bill, during a speech to his Senate colleagues. “Children are still at risk and we all hope we don’t have another death, but we know the system has not improved enough to make us all feel like it.”
Diamond’s bill, LD 1263, would remove child welfare and family services from DHHS and create a child and family services division headed by a lawmaker-approved cabinet commissioner. In addition to child welfare, the new Head Department would oversee startup and childcare services, maternal and child health, child support enforcement and home care for children with disabilities.
Speaking to his Senate colleagues, Diamond recalled some of the shocking cases that called for reform.
For example, in 2001, 5-year-old Logan Marr died after being taped to her high chair and left in the Chelsea basement of the DHHS clerk who was supposed to look after her and her sister after her mother lost custody would have. More recently, Mainers have been stunned by the brutal deaths of two children – four-year-old Kendall Chick in Wiscasset in 2017 and, months later, ten-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs – by their parents or caregivers.
In each case, DHHS was accused in subsequent investigations of not checking the children frequently or of not fully following up on numerous complaints and warning signs.
The bill was rejected by Governor Janet Mills’ administration and was supported by only one member of the 13-member committee who heard testimony on the matter. But 21 of the Senate’s 35 members turned down an attempt to reject the bill on Thursday, instead resulting in the measure receiving initial approval and being sent to the House of Representatives for review.
Senator Susan Deschambault, D-Biddeford, said she saw firsthand that “children were an afterthought” during her 40+ years as a social worker with the Maine Law Department. The inclusion of further clerks for child care is only a partial solution, said Deschambault.
“I think the Department of Health and Welfare is so big, so big that it is credible to really investigate a (separate) department,” she said.
During the committee hearing, Child and Family Services Director Todd Landry testified that Diamond’s law would be costly to implement.
“More worrisome, however, is the amount of time, effort, and labor that would be required to disentangle the work of OCFS from DHHS, which could undermine management’s ability to continue systems improvement efforts aimed at making the life of Maines Children and families, ”Landry said in a written statement. “Any benefit of creating a separate department would be outweighed by the cost (both financial, time and effort) of creating a new department.”
Senator Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, was among the dozen lawmakers who voted against the proposal to create a separate division. Breen said the Funds and Funds Committee worked hard to provide the DHHS with funds to hire clerks or other staff needed to support child protection programs.
However, Breen said the state is also facing major challenges in addressing the mental health needs of adults, forcing many people – including parents – to stay on service waiting lists or wait weeks or months for appointments.
“Our outpatient mental health system is in tatters,” said Breen. “It was threadbare before the pandemic and now it’s just in tatters. And each of these children, who are important to us all, live with adults, and the healthier these adults are, the safer the children are. “
In its 2020 and 2021 annual reports to the legislature, the Maine Ombudsman for Child Welfare noted that the DHHS had made progress with reforms since the high-profile deaths of Chick and Kennedy. But child protection watchdogs Christine Alberi also highlighted serious concerns about the DHHS ‘handling of dozens of cases she reviewed.
As a witness for Diamond’s bill, Alberi encouraged lawmakers “to carefully consider whether the measure will be passed” and called the creation of a separate agency to focus on the most vulnerable children “an interesting concept”.
The bill is now entering the house, where its fate is uncertain.
Legislators returned to the State House for plenary sessions this week for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. The House and Senate met several times at the Augusta Civic Center and have held remote hearings or working sessions on hundreds of bills.
You are now faced with the challenge of voting on a backlog of hundreds of bills by mid-June if the legislature is to be postponed.
In other news Thursday:
• The Senate has opposed several Republican-backed measures to limit the governor’s emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic and to exercise more legislative control over future emergency declarations. The Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against the bills on Wednesday.
• A bill to provide preventive, diagnostic, and restorative dental care under the state’s Medicaid program also received preliminary approval in the Maine Senate Thursday after the House of Representatives passed Wednesday. The draft law, LD 996, still requires the final approval of both chambers and, above all, a vote by the legislative budget committee to allocate the money for the enlargement.
• In the House of Representatives, legislators voted 80-57 for the first approval of a bill that would require the Maine State Treasurer to sell or “dispose” of government investments or interests in oil, gas, coal or petroleum companies. The bill faces additional votes in the House and Senate, but when it goes into effect Maine would join a small number of state or municipal pension funds in the US that choose to move away from fossil fuels.
• The demand for paid family and sick leave was also hesitantly pushed forward on Thursday. The Senate voted 23:11 to pass a bill that would create a commission to investigate the implementation of the Maine Paid Family Vacation and Sick Leave Act. The bill, LD 1559, is now going to the House for review.
“While there are federal proposals to introduce paid medical family leave, we all know how slowly things are moving in Washington. We can’t afford to wait for DC politicians to act, ”said Senator Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, the bill’s sponsor. “We have to create a system for and through Maine – one that meets the needs of the Maine people on a daily basis, from gig workers to farmers, fishermen and lobsters, to brewers, waiters and chefs, to nurses and public safety employees . “
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