Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, at the statehouse in Augusta in 2017. Credit: Micky Bedell | BDN

Good morning from Augusta, where a veteran Democratic lawmaker thinks the Legislature’s mechanisms for scrutinizing the state’s largest department are inadequate.

It’s the latest effort to find a fix for ongoing shortcomings in Maine’s child protective services system. An after-deadline bill from Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, would establish an ad hoc commission of lawmakers to reform child welfare services in Maine. The joint order was approved by the Legislative Council last week — a step that’s required of all bills submitted after the start of the session.

The proposal is accompanied by the release of Department Health and Human Services data that show at least 22 children, ages 20 days to 10 years old, who were previously reported to DHHS by others who suspected they were being abused or neglected, have died since January 2017.

Though most of those deaths were ruled accidental, all but one of the cases included documented, even substantiated reports of abuse or neglect leading up to the death. A form of abuse played a part in eight of the deaths, though only four are classified as homicides, according to the data provided upon request to the Bangor Daily News. The cause of death for the rest were accidental or undetermined, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office.

A multi-pronged effort to reform the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child and Family Services, which manages the state’s child welfare cases, is underway. The deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick prompted legislative investigations into their deaths, a state investigation into the child welfare system, changes to the system by lawmakers and a contracted report from the department. Both reports resulted in more than 50 itemized suggestions for improvement, which the department is currently trying to integrate.

Diamond said he proposed this bill because he’s tired of bureaucratic snags and lawmakers “trying to patch a hole with a Band-Aid.”

The proposed committee would have subpoena power and the ability to use the Office of Program Evaluation and Program Accountability as an investigative arm to collect information otherwise confidential to lawmakers, such as DHHS child welfare records. It could also propose legislation focused on reforming the system.

The Legislature lacks a watchdog committee whose sole task is ironing out the kinks in a system through pointed legislative efforts. The patchwork of findings are helpful and necessary, Diamond said, but he worries about the sustained follow-through. Though a recent charge of Government Oversight Committee has been to scrutinize the efficacy of the child welfare system, now that the OPEGA report has been released, the committee will move on to other business.

Building a committee whose sole task is to lift the curtain on the complex child welfare system and propose legislative fixes is essential and he said “piecemeal” work must end.

“I think we’ve got an opportunity” that goes beyond just releasing a report, Diamond said. “We leave every [legislative] session, doing a little bit but not a lot. This may be the time we can really do something that is meaningful.”

Collins resists fast-tracking judicial nominees

The Maine senator was one of two Republicans to oppose a move to speed along judicial confirmations on Wednesday, though she was with her party in an earlier vote. Only U.S. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mike Lee of Utah voted against their majority party’s Wednesday move to limit debate on most judicial nominees from 30 hours to two hours.

Dozens of President Donald Trump’s lower-court nominees haven’t been brought up for confirmation by Republicans amid concerns that Democrats could delay their nominations. The move was a restoration of rules instituted under Democrat leadership in the first two years of former President Barack Obama’s second term, when a bipartisan majority limited debate time.

Democrats later pushed through a rule change that eliminated the filibuster for nominees. Collins voted for limiting debate in 2013 and against the filibuster move from Democrats then. Republicans won control of the Senate in 2014 and haven’t given it up since. All of the changes now pave the way for Trump’s nominees to be pushed through.

Maine’s senior senator voted with Republicans on a Tuesday procedural vote to get to the ultimate Wednesday vote in which she opposed them, saying in a statement that Republicans “should not counter the Democrats’ obstructionism with expediency.”

That mirrors her tack on other controversial issues of the Trump era, including the nomination of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, when she cited a long-standing belief that presidents have latitude to have Cabinet nominees considered in advancing the nomination that she later opposed.

Today in A-town

The Legislature is in today with progressives holding a rally on paid sick leave and a panel fielding a report on the indigent legal system. The House of Representatives and Senate are in at 10 a.m. with possible votes that include House approval of a measure that would raise juror pay. Before that, the Maine People’s Alliance will rally outside the State House before lobbying legislators to pass a paid sick leave proposal from Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, that may be in danger of not getting through the Democratic-led Senate.

Legislative panels will meet after those sessions, including the Judiciary Committee, which will receive and discuss a report from the Sixth Amendment Center on some simmering issues facing the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

Last month, Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, requested a probe from the Legislature’s watchdog committee into a number of issues in the indigent legal system, including allegations of potential fraud that John Pelletier, the commission’s executive director, denied in a letter to the panel. The report coming out today was ordered by the Legislature last year.

Reading list

— A Maine state trooper died Wednesday in a freak highway accident. Detective Ben Campbell, 31, of Millinocket was outside his cruiser at the site of a disabled vehicle south of the Coldbrook Road overpass on Interstate 295 in Hampden at about 7:30 a.m. when he was struck by a tire that had separated from the wheel of a logging truck. Col. John Cote of the Maine State Police described the six-year veteran of the force as someone who “was always going to see the good in people.” Campbell was married with a 6-month-old son.

— Federal regulators approved Maine’s plan to expand Medicaid eligibility. The decision announced Wednesday means that the federal government will pay roughly 90 percent of expansion costs for the low-income adults already in the program and those joining in the future. It also will provide retroactive federal funding for the more than 16,000 Maine residents who have gained eligibility for the government-funded health insurance program since Gov. Janet Mills as one of her first acts as governor in January implemented the expansion approved by voters in 2017.

— A coastal Maine site that promotes itself as a nature tourism destination violated state environmental rules during an expansion. To resolve the environmental violations that occurred during a controversial $30 million expansion, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has agreed to pay the Atlantic Salmon Federation $18,629 for the purpose of completing the Head Tide Dam Modification Project, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Not my father’s hospital

After a respite for a few years, I have again been spending quite a bit of time in hospitals.

Just visiting. But still …

I’ve noticed that, in general, the ambience at Maine hospitals has improved markedly since the 1990s and 2000s, when I was shuttling people in crisis to and from emergency rooms or visiting ailing relatives.

The technology is so much better now. Everything is wired and wireless. Inanimate objects talk as part of cutting-edge patient care. Yesterday, I swear I heard a conversation between a bed and some kind of high-tech monitor.

They were talking about low batteries and other technology beyond my comprehension, but I was intrigued by the non-human interaction. I expected them to start complaining about the Red Sox.

The food in hospitals is so much better now too. It’s really cheap and the selection is extensive. You can even get a good deal on unhealthy stuff if you are so inclined.

The third big change I’ve noticed is that Maine’s newer hospitals have lost the dour, institutional “sick person warehouse” feel they used to have. There are lots of sunny, comfy places for visitors to hang out, check their phones and regroup.

It used to be that the maternity ward was the only uplifting place in a hospital. In college, a couple I knew would go there to ward off the late-semester doldrums by looking through the glass at rows of newborn babies swaddled in pink and blue. More than once, they were asked which baby was theirs.

“Oh, we’re just window shopping,” was their standard reply. Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

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