AUGUSTA — The Legislature handed Republican Gov. Paul LePage a victory Thursday when it approved a bill that would shift the focus in Maine’s child protection system away from family reunification and toward the best interests of the children.

Kendall Chick, left, and Marissa Kennedy

The measure was among several bills submitted by LePage to bolster the protection of children after the state Department of Health and Human Services and its child protection services agency came under heavy scrutiny over the deaths of Marissa Kennedy, 10, of Stockton Springs, in February and Kendall Chick, 4, of Wiscasset in December. Both girls died as a result of abuse, law enforcement officials have said.

Lawmakers also approved legislation costing more than $21 million to add as many as 40 positions to the DHHS, which investigates child abuse reports. The bills also would boost pay for child protection caseworkers by $5 per hour and provide $1 per hour more for those with master’s or higher-level degrees.

The legislation also provides DHHS with $800,000 to contract for clinical help with especially difficult cases involving mental health issues. That funding also would be used to provide mental health support for caseworkers themselves because they are often exposed to traumatic situations in the line of duty. A proposal to kill the bill was rejected on a 46-74 vote before the House voted unanimously to approve contracting for clinical help.

Current law requires child protection workers to make reuniting children with their family the priority after children are removed from a home for their safety. The bill approved Thursday would give those front-line workers more flexibility, requiring that they make a “reasonable effort” at reunification, but only when a child’s safety is not at risk.

The proposed change prompted a vigorous debate, with many legislators saying reunification is known to produce the best results for children when it is done responsibly. Others argued that Maine’s ongoing opioid crisis has dramatically altered the landscape for families and children, and that the DHHS and the judges who ultimately decide whether children can be reunified with their families need more flexibility.

RELIEVING REUNIFICATION PRESSURE

Democrats and Republicans joined to support the change, with lawmakers saying they had heard from DHHS caseworkers, foster parents and others who said children were sometimes being returned to unsafe homes because of the emphasis on reunification.

“This is a smart change, it’s a change for the better for our children,” said Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea. “We need to keep our kids safe. We haven’t done a good job at that.”

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who sponsored the legislation for Gov. LePage, said, “This is one of those areas where we can do something.”

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who sponsored the bill for LePage, said the change was necessary because caseworkers in DHHS were pressured to put children back with their parents even at times when it may not be safe for the child.

“It’s too late for Marissa Kennedy and too late for Kendall Chick, too late for the next little child, we don’t know their name yet because they haven’t died yet,” Diamond said. “We can’t wait before we do anything, and this is one of those areas where we can do something.” The deaths of Marissa and Kendall prompted investigations by DHHS, with LePage’s involvement, and by the Legislature’s watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

The bills passed Thursday were modified versions of legislation proposed by the governor, who submitted five measures and urged the Legislature to move forward with fixes.

LePage’s office has declined comment on the pending legislation, saying only that the governor will consider the bills once they hit his desk.

LePage, whose story of growing up in an abusive home is well-known, has taken a hands-on approach to the administration’s review of its child protection services.

Maine Political Report



“I have personally experienced the trauma of an abusive home, and I want to ensure that we all do what we can to prevent future tragedies,” he said in a July radio address. “I’ve personally reviewed the case files of the two girls who were killed, but I’ve also reviewed many other cases that haven’t made the news. We cannot eradicate evil, but we can do better to protect children.”

ALIGNING FEDERAL, STATE TAX CODES

Beyond more staff, the legislation passed Thursday also provides about $8 million to begin updating the antiquated computer system that DHHS uses to track and record child abuse investigations.

The bills will now go to LePage, who will have 10 days to sign them into law, veto them or allow them to become law without his signature.

The Legislature also finished up some lingering business Thursday, passing a bill that better aligns Maine’s income tax code with changes made this year to the federal tax code.

Rep. Erin Herbig pounds the gavel while serving as House speaker pro tem Thursday. Legislators passed a bill to better align Maine’s income tax code with the revised federal code. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

The bill mirrors some of the new federal tax code, but also rejects portions of it. It retains a standard deduction while adding new tax credits for children and other dependents not found in the new federal law. The bill also would double a property tax credit for low-income and elderly Mainers to help offset increased local property taxes.

“Mainers want to see a fairer tax code, one that helps average people and those who are struggling,” said Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, House chair of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee. “Throughout the process we kept our focus on conforming to the federal tax code where it benefits our state, not out-of-state business interests, and how we can help working families and the elderly make ends meet.”

FIXING ERRORS, EXTRA BALLOT COSTS

The Legislature also passed a bill that fixes a number of errors in state law. The bill was stripped of a correction for a typographical error that had prevented the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices from releasing funding to candidates running under the state’s Clean Election law. The issue was resolved in the courts, leaving a legislative fix unnecessary, but some lawmakers balked at allowing the courts to do their jobs for them.

Meanwhile, the Legislature also was taking up a measure that would provide $330,000 for the Secretary of State’s Office to cover increased printing costs for the November ballots because of Maine’s new ranked-choice voting law, which will be used this fall in federal elections for the House and the Senate for the first time.

The added cost stems from the need to print a separate ranked-choice ballot for those races that can be read by electronic voting machines.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

[email protected]

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