Last week, the Maine Legislature reconvened to pass a number of Gov. Paul LePage’s bills to reform the child welfare system in response to the deaths of two children, allegedly at the hands of their caregivers. Lawmakers voted to de-emphasize making family reunification and rehabilitation a priority in dealing with children who have been victims of abuse or neglect. They rejected a bill to make it a felony to fail to report abuse or neglect, but did appropriate over $21 million to raise salaries for child protective staff and implement better training for them; fund 16 new case worker positions and eight new case aids; raise pay for foster parents in an effort to ease shortages; and replace the old electronic case filing system with a new state-of-the-art system. The funding measure passed nearly unanimously in both houses.

“What we did this week was a good start, but our work needs to continue to make sure the state follows through on these reforms. And with our opiate crisis and rising child poverty, this issue isn’t going away,” said Rep. Patty Hymanson (D-York), the House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, in a statement. “We need to stay vigilant, because nothing is more important than the safety of our children.”

 The Legislature also passed a bill to amend the Child and Family Services and Child Protection Act to de-emphasize the prioritization of family rehabilitation and reunification for children who have been victims of abuse or neglect. Instead, the bill, LD 1922, requires that “reasonable efforts be made to rehabilitate and reunify families” as a means for protecting the welfare of children. All of the local midcoast legislators in attendance voted for the bill except for Sen. Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo Cty.) and Reps. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle) and Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle).

Speaking in favor of LD 1922, acting Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Bethany Hamm said that the DHHS would still provide family reunification and rehabilitation services and allow the child to be raised by the parents whenever possible.

“However, when this is not possible, it becomes equally important to find a safe and stable permanent option for the child,” wrote Hamm in testimony. “At different times, an over-emphasis has been placed both on removing the child from a home and on reunification. This bill seeks to find a balanced approach in the best interest of the child.”







Mary Anne Turowski of the Maine State Employees Association, which represents child protective workers, said the union’s members believed the bill would help stabilize family situations more quickly and “reduce the likelihood of long-term instability in the lives of both children and families,” but only if the DHHS family plan process were streamlined to make it simpler for families to understand and implement, as the current 20-page document is too long and complex. The Maine Psychological Association urged lawmakers to “proceed with caution” because it didn’t know how “reasonable efforts” to rehabilitate and reunify families would be interpreted by state officials.

“We are not sure what ‘reasonable’ means in this context, but we would point out that one organization that has studied this and related issues — the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform — has concluded that rehabilitating and reunifying families is preferable in most cases to placement in foster homes,” the Maine Psychological Association wrote. “Obviously, family reunification is not the best solution in all cases, as the cases of the deaths of two children that prompted these bills and this hearing dramatically indicate. That does not mean that the law making family reunification a priority should be changed.”

Christine Alberi, the state Child Welfare Ombudsman, testified that in the cases the ombudsman’s office has reviewed in which the child was reunified with the family in unsafe situations, the reasons were not because reunification was made a priority in law, but because of “lack of resources, lack of ongoing assessment of the case, failure to provide reunification services, or misjudgment of the level of safety of the parents.”

The Legislature rejected a bill that would have made it a crime, punishable by up to 30 days in jail, for mandated reporters like school staff, medical providers, home health aids and bus drivers to fail to report evidence of child abuse or neglect. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paula Sutton (R-Warren), argued that the measure was necessary to “help ensure that mandatory reporters fulfill their vital role in protecting our most vulnerable population, our children.” But groups like the School Management Association, which represents superintendents and school boards, and the Maine Medical Association argued a better way to protect children is just to ensure that mandated reporters are better trained to spot evidence of abuse or neglect. All of the local House Democrats voted to defeat the bill and all of the local House Republicans voted to pass it.