Legislative Committee Takes Up Bills To Overhaul Maine’s Child Welfare System

Aug 27, 2018

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee spent most of the day Monday hearing testimony on five bills submitted by Gov. Paul LePage aimed at improving the state’s child welfare system.

Maine Public Radio political correspondent Mal Leary spoke with Maine Things Considered host Nora Flaherty about the measures’ support and opposition.

Flaherty: What do these five bills attempt to do?

Leary: Four of the five bills tried to do a lot. They were submitted by the governor in response to a study done by the Government Oversight Committee’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

The study was spurred by the death of two young girls last winter from alleged abuse. The study found weaknesses in the state’s child welfare system.

The bills would increase funding for foster care for caseworkers and supervisors and the purchase of a new computerized case management system. There’s also a bill to change the state’s criminal history laws to allow greater exchange of information amongst agencies.

There’s a bill proposing mandated reporters’ failure to report possible abuse would then become a crime.

And there is both support and opposition. Who gave testimony in support, and what was it?

Well there was broad support saying the state’s not doing enough to investigate potential abuse cases. Some call for even more staff to be hired than is in the governor’s proposal. Some who testified also said there should be additional training for all child protective workers. There were those who argued the whole hearing process is being rushed.

And what did they mean by rushed? I feel like most people would think that protecting kids is a pretty high priority and the Legislature needs to act now.

I think you’re right. But one provision under consideration would change the state’s long-held policy that family reunification should be the first goal in a child abuse or neglect situation. Some testified that while the policy might need some modification the committee should have a thorough discussion with policy experts on whether that’s the best way for the child in the long run. Others argued the panel itself should not be considering some of the proposals where it has no expertise. For example, normally changes to the Criminal History Record Information Act go to the Judiciary Committee for consideration, and proposals to criminalize actions go to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Are those the areas that drew opposition at the hearing?

They did draw opposition. The criminal history record law governs who has access to publicly available data such as convictions, and it also covers data such as when someone’s been charged but not convicted. It also covers information law enforcement may have developed during an investigation. Concerns are that sort of information should stay accessible only to law enforcement and not to Department of Health and Human Services caseworkers.

Is there also opposition to making nonreporting a crime?

Certainly. The Maine Hospital Association and the Maine Medical Association were among the groups opposing the criminalization of failure to report. Basically, current law expects mandated reporters to make a judgment that an incident deserves to be investigated if not reporting becomes a crime. Opponents argue doctors and social workers of all the 32 professions that are mandated reporters will feel they need to report some incident even when they don’t think abuse or neglect was involved because they fear criminal prosecution. The committee was listening to that one, because late this afternoon as they went into work session on the legislation, they voted 8-2 against that particular bill.

What’s next for these five bills?

The committee’s holding work sessions on the five bills as they just did on that particular bill. The bills with price tags will get a second review by Appropriations before the whole Legislature comes in later this week to deal with those bills, and all those other things that were left for when they last recessed.