AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill sponsored by an Aroostook County legislator seeks to allow administrators of children’s homes or residential care facilities to search the backpacks or travel bags of the residents.
Rep. Dustin White, R-Washburn, who works at such a residential care facility in The County, said that many administrators already search the bags of their young charges but did not realize it was illegal.
“A lot of people did not realize that you could not search the residents’ bags in this manner,” said White, whose bill, LD 470, is scheduled for a public hearing at 9 a.m. Friday in Room 309 of the Cross Building in Augusta. “Officials from group homes and other facilities have been saying that they have been doing it all along anyway.”
White said that under Maine law, officials are not allowed to search the bags of the residents when they return to the facility after going to school, visiting doctors or participating in outside activities.
The bill would permit administrators to search children’s bags and confiscate any items that might pose a health or safety risk to themselves or others.
White said the employees in these facilities have not been searching the bags of the residents to pry or try to get them in trouble.
He said that while one concern was that residents might bring in guns or knives, that was not a major issue. He said that a major concern is youngsters bringing in items or substances they might use to harm themselves.
White noted that children are often in group homes and residential homes because they are exhibiting unsafe behaviors such as self-harming, which can include cutting themselves with razors, needles and broken glass to swallowing poisonous substances or drugs. All of those items could easily be smuggled into residential facilities, he said.
“This bill is especially important for kids with self-harming behaviors,” White said. “If passed, this bill will help keep them safe, the rest of the residents safe and the staff safe. That is really the overall goal of the bill.”
White said that while the measure would allow staff to check the residents’ bags, they still could not personally search the children.
“There are a lot of children in these homes that have experienced trauma or abuse, so we would not want to do anything to retraumatize them,” he said.
White said that he worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine on his bill, and that the language used to draft it came from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. He did not specify which ruling.
Rachel Myers Healy, director of communications and public education for the ACLU of Maine, confirmed Monday that the organization did work with White on the legislation. Despite having assisted on the language, however, she said the Maine chapter would not be taking a position on the bill.
No one from ACLU of Maine is planning to attend the hearing Friday to testify either for or against the bill, she said.