No, that headline is not how I really feel about public employees, but they are coming in for a beating these days and it may not be entirely their fault.

Consider these instances in which public employees have come up short. On Feb. 25, Marissa Kennedy, 10, was beaten to death in Stockton Springs, and her mother and stepfather are charged with her murder. Neighbors in Stockton and Bangor and school officials in Bangor had notified the Department of Health and Human Services that she was being beaten. The beatings continued.

Kendall Chick, 4, was murdered on Dec. 8 in Wiscasset. She had been placed by DHHS in the house occupied by her grandfather and the woman charged with killing her.

Logan Marr was 5 when a former child-welfare employee of the DHHS, who was fostering her, killed her by duct taping her mouth and nose so she couldn’t breathe. The woman who killed Logan in 2002 got out of prison in 2017. Logan is still dead.

On Feb. 14, in Florida, 17 people were shot to death by a 19-year-old former student at Parkland High School (near Boca Raton). Officials had been tipped to the shooter’s bizarre behavior and threats. No one intervened until the shootings and even then, a deputy sheriff stood outside the school for four minutes while shots rang out from inside.

And, we all know about Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 supposedly religious Muslim crazies flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers. An FBI agent in Minneapolis had figured out something was happening but her supervisors ignored her warning.

Back along, it became clear that elected legislatures, state and federal, couldn’t perform all the duties of government. That was, maybe, four seconds before the Constitution framers divided our government into legislative (law-making), executive (law-applying) and judicial (law-interpreting) branches. No other part of state or federal government has grown so dramatically as the executive. We have nearly 2 million federal employees (not counting the military) and nearly 22 million employees of state and local government.

We keep growing the governments in both regulatory and its service functions, but we — by “we” I mean our legislatures at all levels who, ostensibly, act on our behalf — have not figured out whether we want public employees to be mere fillers-out-and-passers-along of paper (nowadays, digital blips) or interested and involved people who make judgments and are willing to be accountable for their judgments. Or, in the case of DHHS, whether bureaucrats should try to keep families together or try to protect children.

The pendulum seems to have swung toward the fillers-out in at least four of the five cases above. “I did my job. I filled out the form. I can’t say what happened after I turned in the form.” What happened after the bureaucrat filled out the form is that people died.

Anyone who lives in Maine knows that the DHHS, also called the department of hell and human sacrifice, is a muddled, oversized joke. A bad joke. The incompetence reaches from its twice tossing away millions of dollars for computer systems that wouldn’t work, to the people paid to protect children at risk.

It is easy to wonder why so many cases fall through the cracks. It is even easier to wonder whether some bureaucrats even know their jobs.

A man died last weekend on the job in Dixfield. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating, but what is it investigating? Ted Fitzgerald, regional director for public affairs for the U.S. Department of Labor, told the Sun Journal, “OSHA will gather necessary information to determine which standards apply and whether or not the employer complied with them.”

In other words, OSHA doesn’t even know what rules it is supposed to apply. And you can bet that when OSHA next comes up for funding in Congress, it will give the decades-old testimony: “What we’re doing doesn’t work, so give us more money to do more of it.” In this case, it’s not clear that OSHA even knows what it’s doing.

As a farmer, I had similar experiences with state inspectors who didn’t know their own rules. One had to call the office and then come back and say, “I’ll have to give you that one.” Not, “Sorry, I was wrong,” but “I’ll have to give you that one.”

The bureaucrats who let these cases slip have cover. On March 2, a DHHS official told the Portland Press Herald, in a story carried by the Sun Journal, that state law forbids them from discussing details of Marissa’s case. Is it a coincidence that these “privacy laws” just happen to keep the bureaucrats’ performance from being evaluated? In the private sector, we don’t have that option. We do the job and people evaluate us. If we do it badly, we’re gone. Not necessarily so in the bureaucracy.

Gov. Paul LePage has weighed in, of course. In the cases of Marissa and Kendall, he blamed child protective employees, school officials, police and legislators who “dropped the ball” and failed to prevent the deaths.

“It is a comedy of errors both at DHHS, CDS, the mandatory reporters from the schools, law enforcement . . . everybody messed this up,” LePage told Channel 6. You got that right, Guv, but now, let’s see. Who’s in charge of these agencies? Is it not the elected chief executive? You know, the governor.

By the way, Marissa’s half-siblings were taken into protective custody by the DHHS. Be afraid, kids, be very afraid.

I have a hard time imagining that somewhere out there a little kid is drifting off to sleep with visions of growing up to be a bureaucrat dancing in her head. A firefighter, a lab scientist, a teacher, a farmer, maybe.

One may dream of working in a field such as wildlife biology, but the dream is likely to be of moose and fishers, not of pushing laptop keys and issuing citations. A state inspector? A pencil pusher? Hard to imagine.

Bob Neal worked mostly in the private sector as a journalist and farmer, but he must own up to time on the public payroll as a professor at Miami University and at the University of Maine and as a part-time teacher at UMF.

Bob Neal

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