I am not here to bash the employees of the Department of Health and Human Services, but want to begin by acknowledging that they comprise the largest executive branch agency in Maine.

Maine’s DHHS employs more than 3,000 people, providing health and social services to approximately one third of the state’s population. Those 3,000 employees work in nine divisions; Office of Aging and Disability Services; the Maine CDC; Office of Child and Family Services or CPS; Office of Behavioral Health; the Office for Family Independence; Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center; Office of the Health Insurance Marketplace; MaineCare; and Licensing and Certification.

The agency has become so large, and has so many divisions under its care, that it is unable to manage them all effectively.

We have seen how 34 of our children have died while they were involved with state services in just 2021 alone. This is heartbreaking, maddening and totally unacceptable. The state was charged with keeping those children safe and failed – over and over and over.

When these cases make the news, mostly because the family brings them to the press, the department will use “confidentiality” disclaimers to try to cover up its failures to protect Maine’s children from abuse and death. There is precedent for allowing public access to minimum information in these cases if the department had been involved with the child or family in any way prior to the cases of death, serious injury and abuse or neglect of children in state custody, or receiving child welfare or juvenile justice services before any trials.

But CPS is not the only division within DHHS that has had responsibility for people whose deaths occurred under unclear and undisclosed circumstances. Over the past three years, eight incapacitated people in the state’s care have died and authorities don’t know exactly how.

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Oh, and DHHS never reported these deaths to the legislative Health and Human Services Committee as required by a 1997 law; this was discovered by a journalist looking into how the probate court system works in regards to the guardianship program.

In February, the Maine Supreme Court ruled that the state wrongly terminated parental rights after determining that the mother, who was recently widowed, was unfit because she could not address the child’s complicated medical needs. At the same time, DHHS never provided the 24/7 nursing care that it was legally required to under MaineCare. To quote the justices: “Inadequate resources do not excuse a state’s obligation to provide benefits under Medicaid.”

This case is a major victory for disabled parents and children under DHHS/CPS care, finding that families should not be separated when the state fails to provide legally required services and accommodations.

Had the services that the law requires been in place, the recently widowed mother may have been able to keep her child at home. We will hopefully learn this during the trial that will determine whether the mother would be unfit regardless of the department’s failure to provide skilled nursing care – and whether there is an alternative to termination of the mother’s parental rights that meets the best interests of the child.

I’m touching only on the more recent cases involving DHHS issues here. Mainers keep seeing more and more that DHHS appears to operate as though it is above the laws meant to keep the Legislature informed, and that it is not even required to follow even its own rules. This seems to come from a long-running, deeply entrenched set of institutional problems, not the result of Republican or Democrat administrative policies. It is imperative that we improve our record of ensuring the well being and welfare of all children and adults in state custody from the moment they enter care.

Here I have highlighted failures from three of the nine divisions, a sad rate of known failures. If we just look at what we know of their failures that have become public as the tip of the iceberg, I think the whole of DHHS should be the subject of an independent outside audit to see what other failures have not been revealed to the public.


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