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Lawmakers debate record confidentiality, scope of child welfare inquiry

The Maine Legislature has adjourned for the year, but lawmakers continue to ask for more information from the state's child welfare programs following a spate of child deaths. But there are questions about how deeply lawmakers should delve and whether they should have access to confidential case information.

Earlier this spring, some members of the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee expressed frustration at their inability to obtain more specific information from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services related to death cases. In some of those cases, police are still investigating and prosecutors are developing murder cases against parents. But DHHS says other details about families or children are protected by confidentiality laws.

Assistant Attorney General Chris Taub told lawmakers on Wednesday that state law does suggest that some "legislative officials" could access confidential records, but that such access has never been litigated. Instead, Taub said the law is written to allow the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, to obtain and analyze confidential records and then present its findings to lawmakers after scrubbing out any sensitive information.

"So I think that's really the source of your frustration, is that the way the process was set up is it wasn't really designed to have the committee do the really deep, deep dive into the documents,” Taub said.

OPEGA is expected to issue a final report this fall on Maine's child welfare system that was sparked by the abuse-related deaths of four children in the span of a month last summer. Lawmakers passed several bills this year to strengthen the state's child welfare ombudsman agency, to increase the frequency of reports to lawmakers and to invest in support programs for families within the DHHS system. But some lawmakers say they are frustrated that more sweeping reforms haven't been enacted.

Republican Sen. Jeffrey Timberlake of Turner was among those who attended a State House rally on Wednesday along with foster parents and others who expressed complaints about DHHS.

"We gather here on this day to rally and say no-more-names,” Timberlake. “We recently learned of the 29 deaths — not 25 — that were added in 2021. A list that we shouldn’t have to even keep but that is kept by the Office of Child and Family Services. Think of it: 29 children.”

Timberlake noted that the 29 child deaths within DHHS’s Office of Child and Family Services was the highest ever in a single year. But Rep. Holly Stover, a Democrat from Boothbay, cautioned that figure includes children killed in car accidents, deaths from natural causes as well as fatalities attributed to "sudden infant death syndrome," or SIDS.

Speaking during Wednesday’s Government Oversight committee, Stover said lawmakers should focus on obtaining records relevant to the question of how DHHS was involved with cases of children who died from abuse or neglect as the committee examines potential reforms.

"I think we need to continue to pursue our work but I think we need to be sensitive,” Stover said. “We don't need to know all of the stuff because as we have discussed in this committee before . . . some of this material needs to be left aside for trial prep and for the courts to decide. And what we need to know is really about the (DHHS) involvement.”

The Government Oversight Committee plans to meet into the fall as part of its "aggressive" focus on the child welfare issue.