The Maine Department of Health and Human Services offices on State Street in Augusta, shown in this December 2017 file photo. Credit: Darren Fishell / BDN

Five Republicans and one Democrat on the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted Friday to appeal a superior court judge’s decision denying the panel access to confidential child protection files of four children killed in 2021.

The oversight committee’s 6-4 vote marks its second attempt to obtain confidential records held by the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the small investigative agency that the committee directs, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

The committee sued DHHS in October to gain access to the records, but Superior Court Justice William Stokes ruled that the law only grants OPEGA the authority to review confidential records, not the oversight committee.

Lawmakers pushing for an appeal acknowledged that the chances of success might be slim and that a court review might not take place for quite some time, but assistant House Republican leader Rep. Amy Arata, of New Gloucester, says it’s worth a shot.

“I want to show the public how seriously we take this and the sense of urgency that we have,” she said. “And I want to be very clear on that, in that respect.”

Democrats who voted against the appeal maintained that the committee was better off amending the law so that it could gain access to confidential records in the future.

Democratic Sen. Craig Hickman, who sided with the Republicans, argued that the committee could pursue both a legislative and legal path simultaneously.

The vote follows another scathing assessment of practices by Child Welfare Services by its ombudsman, who found substantial deficiencies in more than half of the 85 cases it reviewed last year.

The ombudsman report did not describe any specific issues related to the four child death cases that it and the oversight committee are investigating, but OPEGA will provide its assessment in at least one case — the death of 3-year-old Hailey Goding — when the committee meets again on Feb. 10.

This story appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.