State lawmakers advanced several bills on Monday that supporters hope will improve Maine’s child protection programs in the wake of recent deaths of children.

Bills endorsed Monday would increase investment in programs that support struggling families, launch a pilot program to provide legal representation to parents undergoing child safety investigations and increase legislative oversight over child protection services.

The Health and Human Services Committee tabled a related bill to limit the number of hours worked by caseworkers – an issue that Gov. Janet Mills has sought to address by adding staffing to cover overnight and weekend shifts. The committee recently voted in favor of a bill to increase the independence of the Child Welfare ombudsman and add staff.

Only one of four bills recommended by the committee on Monday received a unanimous vote. That bill, L.D. 1853, sponsored by Democratic committee co-chair Sen. Ned Claxton, of Auburn, would require the citizen members of two of the panels overseeing the Office of Family and Child Services – the Maine Child Welfare Advisory Panel and the Child Death and Serious Injury Panel – to report to the legislative committee on a quarterly basis. Claxton’s bill also would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to report its progress toward implementing the reforms on a quarterly basis.

“To hold them accountable is the overall goal,” Claxton said.

Lawmakers renewed scrutiny of protective services after four children died within a month of each other last summer. An outside group, Casey Family Services, produced one report recommending improvements in the program. And the Legislature’s nonpartisan watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Accountability Agency, is conducting its own investigation.

Advertisement

The reform efforts also come after the Department of Health and Human Services reported that 25 children died last year – the most since the department began tracking deaths in 2007. That doesn’t include at least four deaths that were classified as homicides and haven’t been added to the total because the criminal cases have not been resolved.

Claxton said his oversight bill was inspired by a bill submitted by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, to increase oversight by requiring the Office of Family and Child Services report to the Government Oversight Committee, which is fully staffed year-round and has subpoena powers. The committee voted against Diamond’s bill, saying the HHS committee would continue to work with the oversight committee on child safety issues.

Other bills were endorsed by the Democratic majority on the committee, and included increasing state spending to support families.

BILL CALLS FOR $2.6 MILLION IN FUNDING

One bill, L.D. 393, sponsored by Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, the House co-chair, called for at least $2.6 million of investments to address mental health and substance use issues that underlie many reports of abuse or neglect.

Meyer said she’s proud the committee had previously voted in support of Mills’ proposal to strengthen the Child Welfare Ombudsman program, which responds to complaints from families involved with DHHS. But more needs to be done, she said.

Advertisement

“We have an opportunity here to support legislation that provides investments in the broader child welfare system incorporating improvements in prevention and intervention services,” she said. “I believe it is making the investments in a robust child welfare system that our Maine kids deserve and are looking to us to work together to produce.”

Specific investments called for $2 million in annual funding for behavioral health services for families engaged in rehabilitation and reunification; $420,000 annually to expand support for family members who assume custody of children; and $200,000 annually to a child protective services contingency account, which could be used to help families meet critical needs.

The bill also calls for improving access to services for parents who are working with the department to regain custody of their children; establishing a child welfare coordinator within DHHS to coordinate child abuse and neglect prevention activities across state agencies; and using Maine’s opioid settlement funds to expand medication-assisted treatment in rural areas and peer recovery centers throughout the state.

Republicans unanimously opposed the bills, even though they agreed with the priorities, said Rep. Kathy Javner, R-Chester, noting that many of these issues were already being addressed, or at least proposed to be addressed in the supplemental budget,.

“We care very dearly what happens in the Office of Family and Child Services. We just think there are a lot of moving pieces that are already in play,” she said. “I agree with the policy pieces and I believe we will see these come to fruition.”

BILL WOULD PROVIDE LEGAL SERVICES

Advertisement

The committee also voted along party lines in favor of a pilot project that would provide legal services to parents who are being investigated by child protective services. The bill, L.D. 1824, would create a two-year program to run through the end of 2024 for families living in District 4, which includes Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties.

Currently, parents only get legal representation when the department files a petition for a child protection order. But attorneys who work with families argued that legal representation is needed as soon as the department opens an investigation since parents are often asked by the department to agree to an action plan that can then be used against them in court.

Justin Andrus, the interim director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, estimated that the pilot project would cost about $1.5 million in attorneys fees, but could lead to fewer family separations and fewer court cases, since attorneys would be able to explain the process to their clients and help them understand what they need to do to be reunited their their children.

However, Todd Landry, the director of the Office of Family and Child Services, noted that only 7 percent of all investigations result in a court action and only 3 percent result in a child being removed from a home. “I think we’re doing a very good job of that,” he said. 

But Debra Dunlap, the co-chair of the Maine Child Welfare Advisory Panel, said that a recent survey showed that only 15.5 percent, or roughly five of 33 parents who had involvement with the child protective services, said they understood the process and what they needed to do to keep their children. She said parents don’t trust the caseworkers in many cases because they’re the ones threatening to remove their child from the home.

“In the end, the panel thinks this is one of the important tools to really support parents to help them understand what they need to change in order to prevent the trauma (of removal) in the long term,” Dunlap said.

All of the bills advanced by the committee face votes by the full House and Senate in the coming weeks.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: