There is no more important measure of a government than the way it protects the welfare of those who cannot protect themselves.

State Sen. Bill Diamond is right to push for more attention to child welfare, but his plan for a new state department isn’t the way to go. 2018 photo by Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The death of two young girls three years ago opened a shocking window into how badly Maine was failing to meet its responsibility. Now that the perpetrators have been tried, convicted and sentenced to prison, lawmakers are rightly asking what they can do to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

It’s the right question, but we think state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, has come up with the wrong answer.

Diamond’s bill, L.D. 1263, would take the Office of Child and Family Services out of the much larger Department of Health and Human Services to create an independent department of state government headed by a cabinet level official. Diamond argues that only then would the state’s most vulnerable children get the attention they deserve.

Diamond is right that child welfare needs more attention, but we are not convinced that the problem lies in the department’s structure.

Both 4-year-old Kendal Chick, who died in late 2017, and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy, who died in early 2018, had been the subject of reported abuse. In both cases, overworked and under-resourced DHHS officials failed to intervene in time.

Following their deaths, the state has devoted more money to hire and train personnel. The Legislature created a child services ombudsman with the authority to look at confidential records, and she reports that, while not perfect, the department has made significant improvements.

How much more could be done with a separate department? It’s hard to say.

An independent agency could draw more attention to these important services, but it would also create bureaucratic challenge by figuring out how to distribute federal funds, some of which come to the state in the form of a block grant that cover multiple programs.

Child welfare cannot be easily removed from other DHHS responsibilities that affect children directly and indirectly, including health care, supplemental nutrition, substance use treatment, financial assistance and job training. Families living in poverty need a wide range of supports to protect the well-being of children.

In 2019, Gov. Mills revived the Children’s Cabinet, which brings together the departments of Education, Labor, Public Safety, Corrections in addition to DHHS to coordinate policies that affect children. The Children’s Cabinet organizes its work around two overarching goals: making sure all children come to kindergarten ready to learn, and making sure they finish high school connected to the workforce or higher education.

That is a better way to protect vulnerable children. Children don’t need just one champion in government. They need multiple champions in different departments working toward a common goal.

Protecting the most vulnerable is everyone’s job, and we all need to see it that way.


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