Gov. Paul LePage speaks at the Republican Convention, Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

After the state’s watchdog agency blamed the state’s Department of Health and Human Services Department’s “poor performance” in two recent cases where young children died, Gov. Paul LePage unexpectedly showed up at a legislative hearing to propose changes to the state’s child protective system.

It was good to finally hear LePage take some responsibility for his administration’s failures and to offer some fixes after the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick.

“As a person who grew up in an abusive home, I take full responsibility to ensure we reform the system and see that justice is served for these children,” the governor tweeted Thursday.

His solutions, however, are, as is typical with his administration, heavy handed and overly punitive. The governor also failed to acknowledge that DHHS has been severely weakened under his watch. Child protective staff have unmanageable caseloads and lack the support needed to assure the safety of some of the state’s most vulnerable children.

Cuts to family supports, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and food stamps, have pushed more Maine families to the breaking point. While there is no excuse for child abuse, stressors such as poverty contribute to an increase in family violence. Ensuring that parents can feed their children, access health care and substance abuse treatment and earn a living wage are important pieces in the prevention of child abuse.

At a Government Oversight Committee hearing Thursday, the governor offered three solutions and said he may call lawmakers into a special session this summer to act on them. The first is to de-emphasize family reunification in favor of ensuring a child’s safety. This is not a new push from LePage. Last month, he vetoed a bill that sought to strengthen the standards for what are known as kinship placements. Lawmakers overrode the veto.

As they consider LePage’s proposals, lawmakers must ensure that this is not a knee-jerk solution to very complex problems. The focus on family reunification came after the 2001 death of 5-year-old Logan Marr, who was suffocated by her foster mother, Sally Schofield, who prosecutors said wrapped 42 feet of duct tape around the girl’s head, suffocating her. Schofield was released from prison last year after serving 14 years for manslaughter.

Maine’s statutes on child placement already emphasize that a child’s safety is the “paramount concern.” Rather than rewrite the statute, it may be more effective to put measures in place to ensure that DHHS follows this directive. For example, whistleblowers have reported that some caseworkers are so intent on reunited a child with her parents that they are willing to overlook risk factors, like drug abuse. Changing this does not require a change of law; instead better training and support can change this practice.

As Sen. Roger Katz, chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, said in an interview: “The attitude of the department is more important than the words of the statute.”

LePage also called for jail time for mandated reporters, such as doctors, teachers and social workers, who fail to report suspected child abuse and neglect. This is wrong solution. The problem isn’t too few reports of suspected abuse and neglect. It is a lack of follow up to these reports.

In the Kennedy case, officials from the Bangor School Department made numerous reports to DHHS about suspected abuse while she was a student in the city. It is unclear what happened as a result of those calls. In other instances, calls to the state’s child abuse hotline went unanswered or callers were put on hold for a half an hour or longer.

LePage was spot-on when he called for an upgrade to the department’s outdated computer system. This has been a problem for more than a decade, so it is shameful that the governor is only now flagging it as a priority. At the very end of the recent legislative session, the governor did put in a bill seeking $8 million to upgrade the Child Protective Services computer system. This was much too late for lawmakers to take action on this important request.

Beyond the computer system, LePage didn’t talk about more resources, in terms of funding and personnel, for the department. It is clear that DHHS does not have enough people working in the child welfare area. In addition, those who are working here are not adequately supported and compensated for the difficult work they do.

Problems within Child Protective Services predate the deaths of Kennedy and Chick. So, it is appropriate that solutions go beyond a narrow focus on these two cases to address the much larger problems that plague the entity responsible for ensuring the safety of Maine children.

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