The Maine Senate voted Thursday to create a separate state agency responsible for child welfare in response to several high-profile abuse deaths and ongoing concerns about how cases are handled.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has undertaken numerous reforms during the past several years, including hiring dozens of caseworkers and expanding training, but Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said such reforms have been promised for decades yet have yielded too little progress.

“This is still a serious problem,” Diamond, the bill’s sponsor, said during a floor speech to his Senate colleagues. “Children are still at risk and we all hope that we don’t have another death, but we know the system has not improved enough to make us all feel assured of that.”

Diamond’s bill, L.D. 1263, would remove child welfare and family services programs from within DHHS and create a Department of Child and Family Services, headed by a Cabinet-level commissioner confirmed by the Legislature. In addition to child welfare, the new department would oversee Head Start and child care services, maternal and child health, enforcement of child support, and residential care for children with disabilities.

Speaking to his Senate colleagues, Diamond recalled some of the shocking cases that prompted calls for reforms.

In 2001, for instance, 5-year-old Logan Marr died after being duct taped to her highchair and left alone in the Chelsea basement of the DHHS caseworker who was supposed to be caring for her and her sister after their mother lost custody. More recently, Mainers were stunned by the brutal deaths of two children – 4-year-old Kendall Chick in Wiscasset in 2017 and, months later, of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs – at the hands of their parents or caretakers.

In each case, subsequent investigations faulted DHHS for failing to frequently check on the children or for failing to fully investigate numerous complaints and warning signs.

The bill was opposed by the administration of Gov. Janet Mills and was supported by only one member of the 13-person committee that heard testimony on it. But 21 of the Senate’s 35 members opposed an effort to vote down the bill on the floor Thursday and, instead, led to the measure receiving initial approval and being sent to the House for consideration.

Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-Biddeford, said she saw first hand during her 40-plus years working as a social worker within the Maine Department of Corrections that “children were an afterthought.” Adding more child welfare caseworkers is only a partial solution, Deschambault said.

“I find the Department of Health and Human Services is so large, so large that there is credibility to really investigate a (separate) department,” she said.

During the committee hearing, the director of the Office of Child and Family Services, Todd Landry, testified that Diamond’s bill would be costly to implement.

“Even more concerning, though, is the amount of time, work and effort that would be required to unbraid the work of OCFS from DHHS, which could undermine the ability of management to continue pursuing system improvement efforts that are targeted towards improving the lives of Maine’s children and families,” Landry said in written testimony. “Any benefit derived by the creation of a separate department would be outweighed by the cost (both financial and in terms of time and effort) of creating a new department.”

Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, was among the dozen lawmakers who voted against the proposal to create a separate department. Breen said the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee has worked hard to provide DHHS with funding to hire caseworkers or other staff needed to bolster the child welfare programs.

But Breen said the state also faces major challenges in addressing the mental health needs of adults, forcing many people – including parents – to linger on wait lists for services or to have to wait weeks or months for appointments.

“Our outpatient mental health system is in shreds,” Breen said. “It was threadbare before the pandemic and now it is simply in shreds. And every one of those children that we all care about live with adults, and the healthier those adults are, the safer the children are.”

In annual reports to the Legislature in 2020 and 2021, Maine’s child welfare ombudsman found that DHHS had made progress on the reforms since the high-profile deaths of Chick and Kennedy. But the child welfare watchdog, Christine Alberi, also highlighted serious concerns about DHHS’ handling of dozens of cases she reviewed.

Testifying on Diamond’s bill, Alberi encouraged lawmakers “to carefully consider passage” of the measure and called the creation of a separate agency focused on the most at-risk children “an interesting concept.”

The bill will now go to the House, where its fate is uncertain.

Lawmakers returned to the State House this week for floor sessions 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 work sessions on hundreds of bills.

They now face the challenge of voting on a backlog of hundreds of bills by mid-June, which is when the Legislature is slated to adjourn.

Also Thursday:

• The Senate defeated several Republican-backed measures to curtail the governor’s emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic and to exert more legislative control over future emergency declarations. Democrats in the House had voted to reject 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 on Thursday after passing the House on Wednesday. The bill, L.D. 996, still requires final approval from both chambers and, crucially, a vote from the Legislature’s budget committee to allocate the money for the expansion.

• In the House, lawmakers voted 80-57 to give initial approval to a bill that would require Maine’s state treasurer to sell off, or “divest,” any state investments or holdings in oil, gas, coal or petroleum companies. The bill faces additional votes in the House and Senate but, if enacted, Maine would join a small number of state or city pension funds in the U.S. opting to divest from fossil fuels.

• The push to require paid family and medical leave also took a tentative step forward Thursday. The Senate voted 23-11 to pass a bill that would create a commission to study how to implement paid family and medical leave law in Maine. The bill, L.D. 1559, now goes to the House for consideration.

“While there are proposals at the federal level to implement paid family medical leave, we all know how slow things move in Washington. We cannot afford to wait for politicians in D.C. to act,” Sen. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. “We need to create a system for and by Maine – that meets the needs of everyday Mainers, from gig workers, to farmers, fishers and lobstermen, to brewers, waiters and line cooks, to nurses and public safety workers.”

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