AUGUSTA, Maine — By an 8-1 Wednesday vote, the state's joint government oversight committee moved to sue the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for full access to the files of four children who allegedly died at the hands of a parent last summer after the department defied a subpoena to hand over the files, something the department argues it can't legally do.
It's another significant move, after months of back-and-forth with the department, which agreed on Oct. 7 to send the files to the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA.
Its investigators would examine the files and then provide its own review to the committee. Republican Senate Ranking Member Lisa Keim of Oxford County said that's not good enough.
"We have definitely come to a place where we have to take a more hands-on approach to what’s happening in Office of Child & Family Services," Keim said after the meeting. "Things are not going well. Children are not safe in the state of Maine, and it’s up to us to dig deep and find the answers."
"I think it's pertinent we know what happened and where the system failed," Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said. "Not in the prosecution in the death of children, because I believe the law enforcement agency will take that into their hands, but I need to know what happened in DHHS, where that failed."
A DHHS spokesperson told NEWS CENTER Maine on Wednesday that the attorney general's office advised that the department was not allowed to share the files with committee members.
"The Office of the Attorney General’s Chief of Child Protection advised the Department of Health and Human Services in June that it would be impermissible to release these confidential records to Government Oversight Committee members directly," the spokesperson wrote. "Instead, the Department shared these records with the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA), pursuant to State law, on Oct. 7, 2022, following the Committee’s Sept. 21 vote. We look forward to OPEGA’s review and the Court's resolution of this issue so we can advance our vital work to protect Maine children."
While unified in their desire to access the files, some committee members said the statute, as written, might not be in their favor as it heads to a Superior Court judge for review.
"I have to say, honestly, that I did think it was going to take something like this [lawsuit] because, the state statute, as it's currently written, doesn't support us having access," Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, the House chair on the committee, said. When asked how, then, she sees a path to victory in court, she said that would be for the court to decide.
Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, the committee's Senate chair, was the lone "no" vote on the motion to file the lawsuit.
"I think the statute that the committee wants to hang its hat on is not clear," Libby said.
The committee's time and efforts would be better directed, he said, toward rewriting the statutes in the legislature to allow for more transparency from the DHHS moving forward.
Keim, Stover, and others among the committee all stated their desire to see new legislation passed to that effect, regardless of what comes from this lawsuit.