The State House in Augusta Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Several caseworkers and child welfare experts warned Monday that an eleventh-hour $21 million reform package could worsen or leave unaddressed longstanding problems in system.

A legislative committee Monday discussed Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s five bills, which he submitted this month. Lawmakers plan to return Thursday to take up those bills, which aim to bolster the system as lawmakers respond to two high-profile deaths of children and the opioid crisis sends more children into state custody.

“If we can’t put partisan politics aside to deal with this critical and tragic situation then I don’t know when we ever will be,” said Bethany Hamm, acting health and human services commissioner.

Maine is seeing more abuse reports and higher caseloads following recent LePage administration policy changes that require more assessments of abuse allegations. LePage’s bills would boost caseworker stipends, hire more supervisors, increase funding for foster families, criminalize failure to report child abuse and eventually buy a new computer system that could cost $30 million in all.

Lawmakers should avoid rushing to make broad changes based on headlines, said Shawn Yardley, the CEO of Community Concepts, a Lewiston-based nonprofit that provides housing, economic development and social services.

“This isn’t a crisis; it shouldn’t be treated as a crisis,” he said. The state hasn’t adequately funded child protective services for decades, he said, and blamed lawmakers for inadequate funding for social services.

Several committee members acknowledged such concerns but said the bills could be a starting point for deeper change. “We have five bills, and then we have huge systemic issues,” said Democratic Rep. Dale Denno.

The committee Monday voted 6-2 in support of the $21 million spending bill, while also hiring 16 new caseworkers and eight new case aides. It’s unknown how much the caseworkers and aides will cost.

The lawmakers expressed mixed support for the other bills. The committee voted 8-2 to urge lawmakers to reject the criminal penalty for failure to report child abuse and neglect.

Maine currently has a $500 civil penalty for those who don’t make required abuse and neglect reports. Hamm said she wasn’t aware that penalty has ever been used, but said her agency is concerned that so-called “mandatory reporters” are not reporting.

“It is our intention to convey the grave necessity of reports, and to ensure that if there is any question, the answer is to report,” she said.

The state must address long wait times for those making abuse reports and has failed to present evidence that people aren’t reporting abuse as required under law, said lobbyists for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and Maine Hospital Association.

Several caseworkers called for more front-line jobs but said support and training is needed to retain workers.

“I’m worried an already overloaded system is going to be further overloaded,” said Portland-based caseworker Lindsey Duca.

The committee voted 5-3 to urge lawmakers to kill LePage’s bill requiring Maine to only make reasonable efforts to keep families together. Republican Rep. Deborah Sanderson said it doesn’t make sense to use up state time and resources to keep families together in cases where it’s clear such efforts will fail.

But Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi said the bill’s actual impact is unclear.

Augusta resident Courtney Allen said that with the help of a state caseworker, she regained full custody of her children in 2016 by seeking treatment for her opioid use. She said she’s worried the bill would send a message that caseworkers don’t have to work as hard to reunify parents.

“Effectively you are turning your backs on us and our children,” she said.

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