Legislature hands LePage a win on child protection bill

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AUGUSTA — The Legislature handed Republican Gov. Paul LePage a victory Thursday when it approved a bill that would shift the focus in Maine’s child protection system away from family reunification and toward the best interest of the child.

The measure was one in a package of bills the governor submitted with the goal of bolstering Department of Health and Human Services efforts to protect children after the department and its child protective services agency came under heavy scrutiny following the deaths of Marissa Kennedy, 10, of Stockton Springs, in February and Kendall Chick, 4, of Wiscasset in December. Both girls died as a result of child abuse, law enforcement officials have said.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, speaks during debate on “An Act To Improve the Child Welfare System” on Thursday at the Maine State House in Augusta. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)

The Legislature also approved legislation with a price tag of more than $21 million to add as many as 40 positions to DHHS, which is tasked with protecting children and investigating child abuse reports. The bills boost the pay for child protection caseworkers by $5 per hour and provide an additional $1 per hour pay hike for those who obtain a master’s degree or more.

The legislation provided DHHS with an additional $800,000 to contract for clinical help with especially difficult cases involving mental health issues. That funding would be used to provide mental health support for caseworkers themselves because they are often exposed to traumatic situations in the line of duty. A vote to kill the bill was rejected on a 74-46 vote before the House voted unanimously to approve the change.

Current law requires child protection workers to make reunifying a child with their family the priority after a child is removed from a home for his or her safety.

The bill approved Thursday would give those front-line workers more flexibility, requiring them to make a “reasonable effort” at reunification, but only when a child’s safety is not at risk.

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The vote prompted a vigorous debate among lawmakers, with many saying that reunification was known to produce the best results for children when it is done responsibly. However, others argued that Maine’s ongoing opioid crisis has dramatically altered the landscape for families and children and that DHHS and the judges who ultimately decide whether children can be reunified with their families need more flexibility.

Both Democrats and Republicans joined to support the change with lawmakers saying they had heard from DHHS caseworkers, foster parents and others who said children were sometimes being returned to unsafe homes because of the emphasis being placed on reunification in the law.

“This is a smart change, it’s a change for the better for our children,” Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea said. “We need to keep our kids safe. We haven’t done a good job at that.”

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who sponsored the bill for LePage, said the change was necessary because caseworkers in DHHS were pressured to put children back with their parents even at times when it may not be safe for the child.

“It’s too late for Marissa Kennedy and too late for Kendall Chick, too late for the next little child, we don’t know their name yet because they haven’t died yet,” Diamond said. “We can’t wait before we do anything and this is one of those areas where we can do something.”

The deaths of Kennedy and Chick prompted investigations by DHHS, with LePage’s involvement, and by the Legislature’s watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

The bills passed Thursday were modified versions of legislation proposed by the governor, who submitted five bills and urged the Legislature to move forward with fixes.

LePage, whose story of growing up in an abusive home is well-known, has taken a hands-on approach to the administration’s review of its child protection services.

“I have personally experienced the trauma of an abusive home, and I want to ensure that we all do what we can to prevent future tragedies,” he said in a July radio address. “I’ve personally reviewed the case files of the two girls who were killed, but I’ve also reviewed many other cases that haven’t made the news. We cannot eradicate evil, but we can do better to protect children.”

Beyond more staff, the legislation passed Thursday also provides about $8 million in funding to begin an update to an antiquated computer system that DHHS uses to track and record child abuse investigations.

The bills will now go to LePage, who will have 10 days to sign them into law, veto them or allow them to become law without his signature.

INCOME TAX CODE

The Legislature also finished up some lingering business by passing a bill that better aligns Maine’s income tax code with changes made this year to the federal tax code.

The bill includes keeping a standard deduction while adding new tax credits for children and other dependents not found in the new federal law. The bill would also double a property tax credit for low-income and elderly Mainers to help offset increases to local property taxes.

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