AUGUSTA – The Legislature’s watchdog agency is proposing several potential law changes to close cracks in the system for protecting Maine children against child abuse.
The changes under review by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability include adding training requirements for professionals who are mandated to report suspected abuse and changing the criteria that would trigger a report of suspected abuse to the Department of Health in Human Services.
OPEGA said lawmakers may also want to strengthen communications between public school officials and DHHS, possibly by requiring reports of frequent or extended absences from school, whether they are excused or not. Another proposal would allow schools to independently verify health care information provided by a parent or guardian.
Beth Ashcroft, executive director of OPEGA, outlined the proposal Thursday at a meeting of the Government Oversight Committee. The panel ordered the review after the deaths of 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs. Chick died in late 2017 and Kennedy in early 2018. Authorities say both girls were severely abused at home over a long period of time, and questions have swirled about why DHHS never picked up on the dangerous situations or failed to follow up on reports of suspected abuse.
Marissa Kennedy’s mother, Sharon Carrillo, and stepfather, Julio Carrillo, have been charged with depraved indifference murder in her death. And Shawna Gatto, the fiancee of Kendall Chick’s paternal grandfather, has been charged with depraved indifference murder in her death.
In its report issued in May OPEGA found state child protective workers failed to follow policies and procedures in assessing the placement of Chick with her grandfather. With regard to Kennedy’s death, OPEGA found there were widely scattered reports of potential abuse or neglect, but information that might have led to a reassessment of the child’s situation and prompted officials to intervene was not shared at critical moments.
As the oversight committee met Thursday, Gov. Paul LePage issued a weekly radio address saying he would call lawmakers into a special session later this summer to take up legislation he intends to introduce aimed at protecting children.
LePage said he would focus his proposals on two areas of law, including changing a state policy that promotes family reunification and instead pursuing the safest placement option for the child. He also said he would again seek to make it crime if a person who is mandated by law to report child abuse does not do so.
Mandated reporters including teachers, school officials, doctors, nurses, social workers, police and others certified or licensed by the state to work with children or families. LePage previously sought to criminalize failure to report suspected child abuse, but he was rebuffed by the Legislature.
“Folks, how many times must reunification or rehabilitation fail before the system determines it’s not possible?” LePage asked in the radio address. “We’ve seen the tragic results when those attempts fail. This must end.”
LePage said making failure to report suspected abuse a crime would provide an incentive for quick action. “Mandatory reporters must not hesitate or second guess whether they should report,” he said.
The governor’s emphasis on mandated reporting and reunification policy suggest that both may have been factors in the child protective system’s failure to safeguard Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy against abuse. However, it’s not clear exactly how the system worked – or failed – in their cases because investigators have withheld information from public disclosure to avoid damaging pending criminal prosecutions.
LePage said in his radio address that he would not call lawmakers back to a special session until they finished work they still have before them and adjourn. The Legislature is currently in recess from a special session that started in June but stalled in partisan gridlock over funding for the Clean Elections program, possible changes to minimum wage law and conforming the state’s income tax code to the new federal tax code.
“I won’t allow a bill to protect our children to become a political soccer ball like so many other things this session,” LePage said. “When the Legislature wraps up what should have been completed months ago, we can move on to the critical work of protecting our children.”
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, a member of the Government Oversight Committee, said LePage was right to demand a special session that focuses only on the child abuse issue. He said the Legislature should settle its other differences and if lawmakers can’t reach a compromise they should adjourn to quickly so they can take up child protective reform.
“God forbid, and please don’t let this happen, but if something happens to a child between now and then – then we own it – the Legislature owns it,” Saviello said. “Not the governor, the Legislature. So I actually agree with him.”
The oversight committee is expected to meet again Aug. 9 to continue reviewing OPEGA’s recommendations for reform, which would likely be integrated with LePage’s proposals in a single bill.
Maine State House is the state capitol of the State of Maine in Augusta, Maine, USA.