The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
State officials must continue to identify and address problems in Maine’s child welfare system to better protect children and families.
The truth is that heartbreaking, infuriating failures have occurred in this system under both Republican and Democratic administrations for decades. We are confident in saying, despite some differing opinions about what to do about it, that officials across the political spectrum all want to prevent future tragedies.
That recognition must be front and center as the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee gets set to meet Wednesday and discuss potential next steps in a disagreement with the administration of Gov. Janet Mills over access to certain child protective case files. The committee has sought the files from four recent child deaths with parents accused of killing their children. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has denied that request, pointing to confidentiality issues and the risk of jeopardizing ongoing prosecutions.
The denial centers around advice provided by the Maine attorney general’s office in June, which said that DHHS could not share the confidential case files directly with the oversight committee but that they could be released to the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which the committee directs. OPEGA staff could then analyze and present information to the committee in a way that preserves confidentiality. A similar process has been used in other child death cases, before prosecution concluded.
Oversight committee members must now decide whether to flex their subpoena power and continue to seek the full case files. As some members have acknowledged, that would likely take up time and money in court.
If committee members believe they are not being granted access to documents and information they are legally entitled to in their oversight role, then this would not be an unreasonable path to assert legislative power as a coequal branch of government. Clarifying the authorities and limits under existing statute would be an important determination for this and other oversight matters. But that is a somewhat philosophical exercise compared with the more immediate need of learning from past failures and preventing future child deaths.
From a practical standpoint, we keep going back to the advice from Assistant Attorney General Ariel Gannon, and the fact that three months have now gone by since it was provided. Gannon advised DHHS to work with OPEGA “to define the information OPEGA needs to fulfill its directive from GOC; that DHHS and OPEGA negotiate and agree upon terms of disclosure and preservation of confidentiality; and that DHHS comply with OPEGA’s request for confidential protective information and records under these terms.”
The committee should begin that process, and begin it this week. They should also have a conversation about whether it is possible to subpoena the full case files at the same time. We’re not convinced that one would preclude the other, but we’ll leave that question to the lawyers.
From our place on the sidelines, given the current legal opinions and timing realities with only a few months left before a new Legislature is sworn in, it seems to us that moving forward with the process outlined in the assistant attorney general’s letter — which DHHS said in August they “stand ready” to engage in — is the most productive path forward in the short term in order to balance the oversight committee’s role, confidentiality and the integrity of ongoing prosecutions.
True justice for these child victims, we believe, must go further than convicting the individuals who are immediately responsible. It must also include ongoing work (and this is just one piece of it) to pinpoint and fix systemic issues that may have contributed to these tragedies.
For lawmakers to continue that work, they need access to as much information as possible, as soon as possible. The attorney general’s office suggested a way to achieve this in June, and at a minimum, it is past time for the oversight committee, OPEGA and DHHS to walk that path together.