AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted Thursday to subpoena the head of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to testify, after he failed to attend a hearing on recent, high-profile child abuse deaths.

The unanimous, bipartisan vote came moments after the committee learned that DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton would not attend Thursday’s meeting despite personal assurances from Gov. Paul LePage that Hamilton would participate.

“How dumb are we to take him at his word?” Sen. Roger Katz, an Augusta Republican who co-chairs the Government Oversight Committee, said about LePage’s previous statements to the committee. “And how dumb are we not to have issued a subpoena for the commissioner to be here? We are all supposed to be on the same team.”

DHHS and LePage’s office did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Under the committee’s direction, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the Legislature’s watchdog agency, is conducting a fast-tracked investigation into the efficacy of DHHS child welfare programs as lawmakers and the LePage administration examine potential changes to the system.

Maine’s child protective services have been under intense scrutiny since two girls – 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs – died in late 2017 and early 2018. 

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Authorities say both girls were severely abused at home over a long 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.

An initial report by OPEGA faulted DHHS for not following its own policies and procedures when assessing the safety of one girl’s placement while suggesting agencies failed to share information that, when pieced together, might have called attention to the abuse.

On Thursday, the outgoing director of OPEGA, Beth Ashcroft, presented potential “next steps” for her watchdog agency and the committee as the review continues. The committee is expected to prepare draft legislation for consideration during a special session later this year. One of the next steps is for OPEGA to prepare a plan to survey or interview frontline DHHS workers about their caseloads, issues they face and solicit feedback on potential changes.

But committee members expressed frustration that some of the major questions they have about the programs, such as staffing levels, vacancies, training and retention of employees, could not be answered Thursday because DHHS did not participate.

“I look forward to asking the commissioner a lot of these tough questions that we will not have answers for at your next meeting until he shows up,” said Rep. Jeffrey Pierce, R-Dresden.

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LePage has previously said that “the whole system is flawed” and spread blame for the child deaths across multiple agencies — from DHHS to schools and police — that failed to intervene.

During an appearance before the committee in May, LePage said he would be willing to call the Legislature back in for a special session to fix identified problems within the child welfare system. LePage also said his administration would pursue a range of reforms, including a renewed effort to impose criminal penalties on so-called “mandatory reporters” — professionals such as teachers and doctors — who fail to report suspected child abuse or neglect and an upgraded computer system.

It was unclear Thursday morning why Hamilton did not attend the Government Oversight meeting, although LePage has repeatedly denied requests from lawmakers to have representatives from multiple departments appear in person before committees. The governor has accused lawmakers of being rude or disrespectful to his cabinet members, but legislators say the administration’s refusal to allow representatives to answer questions has made it difficult for the Legislature to carry out its oversight responsibilities and craft legislation that would pass muster with the governor.

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, a Sanford Democrat who co-chairs the committee with Katz, said she hopes DHHS officials and the LePage administration are more willing to work with the committee in the future.

“It does make you wonder what they will share with us? What are they trying to hide, if anything?” Mastraccio said after Thursday’s meeting. “We are all on the same team, we are all here for the same reason. I am just baffled.”

Kendall Chick, 4, of Wiscasset, left, and Marissa Kennedy, 10, of Stockton Springs. Police say both died after being beaten for months. (Photos courtesy of Maine Attorney General’s Office)


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