Members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Wednesday endorsed the creation of a special commission to study and seek public input on improving Maine’s child protective system.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, still needs full legislative approval but would be the latest in a series of moves by lawmakers to ensure the state implements reforms following two high-profile child deaths.

Diamond’s bill was authored last year but held over to the current session. Diamond told Judiciary Committee members Wednesday that his biggest motivation was to ensure that lawmakers keep discussing the matter after the session ends and to give the public an opportunity to be involved.

A report, possibly with recommended legislation, would be due in December.

Diamond had worked with officials at the Department of Health and Human Services on an amended version of his bill, but committee members ended up supporting the original bill, which DHHS opposed over fears that it duplicated oversight that already was in place.

Todd Landry, director of the state’s Office of Child and Family Services, told committee members Wednesday that the department is committed to transparency in reforming the state agency that had come under fire before his appointment. But he also cautioned that another layer of oversight could slow down some of the work that’s being done.

“We are in the process of making major structural changes already,” Landry said.

Problems with Maine’s child protective system were exposed after the deaths of Kendall Chick in December 2017 and Marissa Kennedy in February 2018. In both cases, the victims had been subjected to child abuse before their deaths and multiple warning signs were missed by state caseworkers.

The deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy exposed flaws in Maine’s child protection system.

Since spring 2018, lawmakers have pushed for accountability within the Office of Child and Family Services. The Government Oversight Committee, in particular, has been closely monitoring reforms, which is why the department opposed a new commission.

Many on Wednesday praised Landry for his transparency in keeping lawmakers informed about progress – something that often did not happen during the previous administration.

“The department has a long way to go but they are going in the right direction,” Diamond said.

Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, said he, too, has been impressed with Landry and the department’s communication but he said restoring public trust is still a work in progress and he thinks a special commission will help with that.

“I have full faith that he’s trying to do the right thing, but I hear from constituents who feel their voices are not being heard,” he said. “If there is no public participation, trust is not going to be rebuilt.”

Landry, DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Gov. Janet Mills have made it a priority to increase funding for child protection, leading to the hiring of dozens of new caseworkers. More positions are included in the governor’s supplemental budget proposal.

Landry also has implemented new training requirements and offered more support to caseworkers – whose jobs are highly demanding and often stressful. But the deaths of Chick and Kennedy also have led to a sharp increase in the number of reports of abuse and neglect being made.

Diamond, a longtime lawmaker, said he’s followed child protection in Maine for decades – through multiple administrations – and hopes the state can move beyond knee-jerk reactions to specific cases or quick fixes to deeply entrenched systemic problems.

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