Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday vetoed a bill that would protect a $2.2 million child abuse prevention program that is slated to be eliminated this fall. The state’s system to protect children is under intense scrutiny after the child abuse deaths of two girls in the span of three months.

A government watchdog agency investigating the deaths is expected to release a report on May 24.

The bill to extend funding for the state’s child abuse prevention program through Jan. 31 was overwhelmingly approved by Maine lawmakers. The extension would give the incoming administration time to decide whether to continue funding for the Community Partnerships for Protecting Children program. Democrats, Republicans and independents are vying this November to replace LePage, who is termed out of office. The new governor will assume office in January.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services had announced in February that it was ending funding for CPPC programs in September.

The bill, by Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, was approved unanimously in the Senate and by a 139-5 vote in the House, both veto-proof majorities. The Legislature is slated to return May 2 to consider overriding bills that LePage vetoed.

House Republicans have at times provided LePage with just enough votes to sustain vetoes, despite overwhelming initial support for bills from lawmakers. The House and Senate need a two-thirds majority to override vetoes.

Beebe-Center slammed LePage for vetoing her bill that rescues the child abuse prevention program.

“I don’t think this is the time to veto a bill that would protect children,” Beebe-Center said. “This is the Legislature doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, protect the health and well-being of the people of Maine, particularly its children.”

Maine DHHS officials notified the nonprofit agencies operating the CPPC programs that the funding was being pulled because it duplicates other programs and is not evidence-based.

In his veto message, LePage said that the bill “sets inappropriate limitations on the ability of the executive to manage, enter and exit specific contracts. Without appropriate flexibility, the team at DHHS is left with little ability to ensure a contractor meets basic performance expectations.” LePage said the Legislature’s “meddling” was “completely unnecessary and inappropriate.”

Those operating CPPC programs – including Opportunity Alliance in South Portland – have maintained that the prevention program is the most effective of its kind, based on scientific research and is not duplicating other state programs.

The abuse prevention program began in Greater Portland in the mid-2000s by the nonprofit Opportunity Alliance, but in the last two years the program has expanded to all of southern Maine, Lewiston, Augusta, Bangor and Belfast, thanks to additional funding from the state.

In southern Maine, where it has been established for about a decade, the program partners with about 60 groups, including schools, nonprofits, law enforcement, local governments, churches and others to identify and help families at risk of abuse or neglect. The groups have monthly meetings to talk about children most at risk and share information.

Parents or caregivers of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs, and 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset have been charged with depraved indifference murder for their deaths. Marissa died on Feb. 25, while Kendall died on Dec. 8.

The mother and stepfather of Marissa Kennedy are accused of beating the girl to death after she suffered months of abuse in her home. The girlfriend of Kendall Chick’s grandfather stands accused of killing her; the state had placed the preschooler in their care.

Joe Lawlor can be reached at [email protected] or 791-6376

Twitter: @joelawlorph

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