PORTLAND (AP) – A legislator who is pushing for an overhaul at the Department of Human Services plans an 85-mile walk to the State House to draw attention to the need for change. Rep. Edward Dugay, D-Cherryfield, said he will leave Ellsworth on Thursday and arrive in Augusta Monday. Dugay, a member of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said DHS needs closer oversight. He said the department is often heavy-handed with child protection matters and is insensitive when dealing with Medicaid providers.

Mary Callahan, a foster parent who is organizing the walk with Dugay, says that many children who are placed in state custody do not receive the services they need and are inappropriately kept away from their parents. She said the department needs cultural as well as structural change.

Callahan said this is a perfect time to raise awareness because Gov. John Baldacci has not yet chosen a commissioner and because of the governor’s commitment to merging DHS with the Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services.

Dugay met with Democrat Baldacci on Saturday, spending an hour-and-a-half discussing DHS. “I wanted to raise the awareness to him, to let him know how dysfunctional the system really is,” Dugay said.

Dugay left the meeting in the governor’s office believing that Baldacci will change the department’s structure. “You never get everything you want in Augusta,” he said, “but we’re really not that far off.”

They’re certainly not, agreed Lee Umphrey, the governor’s spokesman, noting that the departmental merger would avoid duplication of services, save money and to provide better services.

On Dec. 15, Val Landry, who chairs the advisory council on the merger, will release a report that the governor hopes will become a blueprint for the Legislature in creating a new department, Umphrey said.

Dugay said he is pleased the governor is taking the matter seriously. But he cautioned that if the Legislature does not devise a total overhaul of the department, he will get enough signatures to place a referendum question on a future ballot asking for comprehensive change.

A big change at DHS, he said, “is going to happen. I’m going to make sure it happens.”

AP-ES-12-01-03 0217EST

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