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New Bill Would Overhaul Maine's Child Protection System

Maine Public
DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton, then a nominee for the post, at a legislative committee hearing Oct. 19, 2017.

Gov. Paul LePage is crafting a bill that he says will improve Maine's child protection system.

That’s according to state Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Ricker Hamilton, who told the Government Oversight Committee Tuesday that the bill will address a range of issues identified in the wake of the abuse deaths of two children last winter.

Commissioner Hamilton had been asked to appear before the committee, but, citing confidentiality and political reasons, Gov. LePage denied the request. Hamilton's presence on Tuesday came after the committeeissued a subpoena. Though the lead up to the meeting may have been contentious, once it was underway the tone was cordial. Even as Hamilton disagreed with Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond's overall assessment that Maine's child protection system is broken.

"No, senator. I think we're challenged and stressed at the moment,” Hamilton said. “I think we're doing the best that we can."

Diamond told Hamilton that he has received numerous comments that the DHHS fails to follow up on reports of suspected abuse and neglect.

"My biggest concern is that there are a whole bunch of kids that get lost between the time they're reported and the time that they should be dealt with,” Diamond said. “And, in fact, too many of them are not being dealt with. It's that black hole in between the report and when somebody from HHS would work and try to find out what's really going on."

Hamilton acknowledged that child welfare is receiving a historic number of referrals, with intake workers fielding about 50,000 calls annually. But he assured the committee that a forthcoming bill from Gov. LePage would improve the state's child protection system on multiple fronts. First, by adding about 75 caseworkers.

“The intent is to have an additional assessment unit with a supervisor within every single district office,” he said.

The bill also calls for an additional intake unit. It would also increase case workers' compensation, which is currently around $18 per hour, to $24 per hour, and it would fund an upgrade to the state's computer system to better track cases. Hamilton says the bill also looks beyond the department to mandated reporters in the community, who would be subject to a civil penalty for failing to report suspected cases of abuse and neglect.

"We know after 50 years that that mandatory reporting law isn't working,” he said. “It's not effective. Is there some other way to make it effective?"

Aside from the bill, Hamilton said other changes are already underway within the system. Some low risk cases that were referred to outside agencies have now been brought back under state oversight, and a new policy requires that cases automatically be assigned for investigation the third time a report is made about a child.

"Those cases, once they reach three, nearly 20 percent of those cases, once we went and looked at them, had abuse and neglect concerns,” Hamilton said. “It didn't present that at intake."

Committee co-chair, Democratic Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, questioned Hamilton about what the department is doing in terms of prevention. Hamilton told her that the state has invested an unprecedented amount of money in child abuse and neglect councils, as well as in treatment for substance use disorders, but Mastraccio challenged the claim.

"As a legislator, I have not seen that investment in early childhood and in our families,” said Mastraccio. “I've seen it decrease. Whether it's through a decrease in feeding kids and decreases in TANF. For me, there are reasons that families are stressed. And families that are in poverty are stressed."

Hamilton said that the department is developing a community intervention program to support families, and that LePage's bill will be released soon. In the meantime, the Government Oversight Committee will continue its scrutiny of the child protection system, with additional reports expected from the independent watchdog agency OPEGA.

This story was originally published July 10, 2018 at 5:53 p.m. ET.