Maine Gov. Paul LePage joined children’s advocates Thursday in calling for stronger state laws and policies to protect children in cases of abuse and neglect.
The recommendations were made at a public hearing in Augusta, one week after a report was released about the state’s handling of two recent child abuse deaths.
The first speaker at the hearing before the Government Oversight Committee, LePage, said current child protection laws set the wrong priority: reunification of an abused or neglected child with their family whenever possible.
“Reunification should be a tool in helping get what’s best for the child. But reunification should not be the priority, and that’s what we have right now,” he said.
LePage made the recommendation as he presented the findings of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services internal review. It was prompted by the deaths last winter of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick.
Because of confidentiality laws and a pending criminal investigation, the details of how the state handled the two cases are unclear. But both deaths were preventable, LePage said.
LePage also highlighted the importance of upgrading the state’s outdated computer system that tracks reports of suspected abuse and neglect.
“If we’d had an up-to-date, state-of-the-art system, red flags would have been flying very high,” he said.
The governor also said that mandatory reporting — the requirement that teachers, physicians and police, among others, report suspected abuse or neglect — is an issue. He wants a new state law that would make failure to report abuse or neglect a criminal offense. That proposal got a lukewarm response from many who testified.
“I have to say I am on the fence about criminalization,” says child abuse pediatrician Dr. Lawrence Ricci.
Ricci says he is certain, however, that mandated reporters need better training.
“It is critical and not happening,” he says.
Better training was also identified by the governor and many others as a need for child protection caseworkers. Dr. Emily Douglas, a Massachusetts-based expert on child maltreatment deaths, told lawmakers her national research has found many caseworkers fear a child in their caseload will die, but they often don’t know the correct risk factors to watch for.
“Can you imagine working in such a high-stakes profession and not having the best knowledge and research tools to adequately do your job? Child workers can. Just ask them what it’s like,” she said.
Maine’s child welfare ombudsman, Christine Alberi, has also identified instances in which caseworkers failed to recognize risk factors for children in her recent annual reports to the state. Part of the solution, she says, is not only more training but reduced workloads, especially for those who train and guide caseworkers.
“I think that supervisor caseloads and supervisor staffing are almost more important if not as important as caseworker caseloads,” she says.
Former state caseworker Mark Moran told lawmakers that there also needs to be better information sharing between those who interact with the child protection system.
“In day-to-day practice, access to information is often determined by the quality of interpersonal relationships between service providers and local communities. The result, therefore, is inconsistent sharing of information, which creates gaps through which children fall,” he said.
Moran lamented to lawmakers that he tried to get input for the hearing from those who are well-positioned to identify systemic flaws — current caseworkers from the Office of Child and Family Services — but was unsuccessful.
“I received a polite but clear response that OCFS staff had been directed not to speak about the OPEGA report or the ongoing review process,” he said.
The next step in that process is a work session for lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee at the end of June. A special legislative session could follow to address issues.
When the committee asked LePage whether he’d be willing to call a special session, he said yes.