AUGUSTA (NEWS CENTER Maine) — Maine legislators will begin debating Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed child welfare reforms next Monday. The governor has submitted a package of bills he said will improve the child protective system.
The state legislature has been waiting all summer to see that plan, though even Gov. LePage has said the $21 million package is just a start on what’s needed.
The legislation is a response to the two tragic child abuse deaths last winter, of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy. The deaths angered people all over Maine and prompted a legislative investigation that is still in process.
In the meantime, the governor and DHHS administrators developed the proposals contained in the new package. It includes a range of policy and staffing changes:
► Reduces reliance on “family reunification” for abused children who have been removed from their homes;
► Makes failure to report abuse a crime for so-called mandatory reporters, such as school and medical employees;
► Increase funding for foster homes;
► Ends the current practice of “purging” records of abuse investigations in some cases;
► Adds 18 supervisory positions in the child protective division;
► Provides added pay and training incentives for caseworkers;
► Implements a new computer system to manage cases.
The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee is scheduled to hold public hearings on all those proposals Monday in Augusta, beginning at 9:30 a.m. Leaders of the committee on Thursday would not reveal their opinions on specific proposals, but said the testimony from people at the hearing will have a big impact.
“My goal is to listen to the child protective workers,“ said Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, the Democratic co-chair of the HHS committee. “Their voice needs to be heard and if they think this will help their workforce, they are boots on the ground, they’re the people who knock on the doors of families in stress and need to be listened to.”
GOP Sen. Eric Brakey also said public comment will play a big role.
“There are always two sides to every issue so I want to have an opportunity to hear from the public the department pros and cons as to what the impact may be,” Sen. Brakey said.
But a former DHHS child protective staff and administrator told NEWS CENTER Maine he thinks the proposal is moving forward too quickly, and that more thought and work are needed to develop a plan that will address the real issues within the system, and protect children.
“The [children] we’ve lost we can mourn,” said Shawn Yardley, now CEO of an agency in Lewiston, “but I’d like to see us give meaning to their lives, their short lives, and say how did we use what happened to make it better? And I’m not confident this emergency session does that.”
The committee is planning to hear from the public and then start its own debate on the bills Monday, then have the full legislature take up the package when it meets Thursday.