DHHS Commissioner says LePage bill addresses questions, concerns about agency
AUGUSTA — Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Commissioner Ricker Hamilton appeared before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee (GOC) for the first time July 10, almost two months after he was to appear before the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability’s (OPEGA) May 21 investigatory hearing into the deaths of two Maine girls.
At the July 10 hearing, the commissioner told the GOC that a proposed bill from Governor Paul LePage is to address concerns and questions raised by the results of the first phase of OPEGA’s investigation into the deaths of two Maine children.
Four-year-old Kendall Chick died in Wiscasset in December, allegedly at the hands of her grandfather’s then-fiance Shawna Gatto.
Marissa Kennedy, 10, was reportedly killed at the hands of her mother and stepfather, Sharon and Julio Carrillo, at their home in Stockton Springs in late February. Both the Carrillos and Gatto have been charged with depraved indifference murder.
Hamilton also failed to appear after being subpoenaed to attend a June 28 GOC meeting, with Governor LePage instead appearing in person at the meeting to read a prepared statement.
LePage had advised the panel that Hamilton would not be attending, citing confidentiality laws and adverse effects on the judicial proceedings.
At the July 10 meeting before the GOC, committee chair Roger Katz administered an oath by which Hamilton swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Hamilton was accompanied by Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea, who was there to address any issues with confidentiality or the ongoing criminal cases.
In a meeting that lasted for more than three hours, Hamilton was questioned about a number of areas within his organization and how the organization handled the investigation into the allegations of abuse the agency received from those concerned about the well-being of Marissa Kennedy.
It is not known whether reports of abuse were made to DHHS on behalf of Kendall Chick.
Commissioner Hamilton was invited to make an opening comment before the questions began, which he accepted.
After thanking the panel for having him there, Hamilton said in part: “As some committee members have previously mentioned, we're all on the same team, and [DHHS is] eager to work with the committee and others to ensure the department and all involved are doing the best job possible to protect children. I believe that by working together [with] the administration, legislature, and most important, the community, will enhance the way we prevent and respond to abused children.”
Hamilton said that all three groups have important roles to play in the effort.
“The Legislature has a responsibility for ensuring proper resources, as well as addressing issues in [the] current statute, whether those are barriers, misplaced priorities, or lack strength.
“The department has the responsibility of working with the community in a comprehensive manner to ensure the safety and well-being of children, either in the homes with their parents or alternative environments where they are free from neglect, trauma, and violence.
“The community has a responsibility of learning the signs of abuse and neglect and reporting when they suspect those signs are evident.
“None of these three entities can prevent abuse on their own. We cannot prevent abuse without our neighbors, nurses, law enforcement, courts, and every member of the community being vigilant and having the courage to say something.
“We need changes in all three sectors. In statues and department policy and procedures, and in the community,” Hamilton said, before adding that he hoped the conversation would be a productive one, which focused on “what we can do, what we are currently doing to immediately improve our system and what we can do together to build a stronger longer-term solution to abuse and neglect.”
The first senator to pose a question was Senator Bill Diamond (D-Cumberland), who said:
"I've received, and others have too, so many responses and indicators that concern about [DHHS] and in particular child protection, and how that system, I believe, is broken, and it may have been broken, and probably has been, for some time, but it clearly is broken in my opinion, and with the professionals that I have talked to.
“I think I can summarize, in two sentences, all of the... most of the complaints, or concerns I should say, and I'd like to have you react to that if I could, that I've received from these people who work directly with child protection and those two sentences go as follows: that ‘[DHHS] rarely investigates the complaints I have filed with them or we have filed with them of child abuse, investigations into reports of neglect are simply not completed.
“It is common knowledge among my colleagues that making a report of neglect is a waste of time, as no follow-up from child protective services will be conducted.’”
Diamond said his biggest concern, after many weeks of seeing this kind of information: “that there's a whole bunch of kids that get lost, from the time they're reported and the time that they should be dealt with, 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 [DHHS] would work and try to find out what's really going on.
“So that's my first question: Could you respond to the broken system, could you respond to the fact that we have people who have frontline experience where these reports are not even being looked at - too many of them, not all, of course, are not being looked at by the department, and as a result these kids continue on in an abusive situation and then we end up with kids being killed?”
Hamilton said he appreciated the question before going on to say he would disagree that the system’s broken, saying:
“One thing I've learned in my 40 years of experience in state service, is that in our system, it's stressed at times, it needs to be flexible, it needs to adjust. Are we at a situation where we are receiving historical numbers of referrals? Yes. It's also tough for me to respond to general questions, it's always better to have specific cases in doing that, but if someone shared that with you, that's their experience, that's their perception of the department.”
He noted that DHHS intake: “gets around 50,000 referrals on an annual basis. Maine has some very tight timeframes to respond to abuse and neglect cases, that you know of, 24 and 72 hours and having a case within 35 days. I would encourage any members of the community, any members on this committee, what often happens when you get a complaint from a constituent, a professional, someone who has had interaction with our system and it's about a specific case, to contact and let us know. We can find out and take a look at it. But having no response at all, or children that are left uncovered and not investigated, I think the system is working as well as it can be at the moment.”
Hamilton said DHHS staff have [made] exceptional changes during the past 90 and 120 days.
“I'd be happy to go over those specifics with you,” he said. “But no Senator, I think we're challenged and stressed at the moment. I think we're doing the best that we can and the best way to respond to any specific questions where people feel as though people are being neglected or left in dangerous situations is to look into it.”
Senator Diamond then asked Hamilton if he feels that the system is not broken, does he feel that it's badly in need of repair.
“To the point where there are children whose lives and safety are at risk?” Senator Diamond asked.
In Hamilton’s response, he talked about an upcoming bill from Governor LePage, which would address many of the concerns raised by the OPEGA investigation.
He told committee members that he would be happy to go over detailed specific adjustments to DHHS’ program, which the agency had planned in 2016 and 2017. The changes put forward by the agency are very assertive and aggressive in the area of changes that they think will make the agency more responsive. according to Hamilton.
“Soon you'll be having a governor's bill presented to you that includes things you've mentioned and some of the reports we've given you — added staffing, changes in the statute…. So there will be a governor's bill coming forward that will address those areas. Also specifically, [Senator Diamond], is the information system that we have now,” he said, adding that he knew Diamond had received complaints or had concerns about that system.
Hamilton told the panel he was: “around when it was introduced and brought in. Changes have been made, it's been updated, but there is a new system that we need to have a certified child welfare information system. Looking at that system has been over the last couple of years. We know a course of action, we know the system that we want, that was identified months ago, and in the governor's bill there will be a request for funding for the total review of that.”
He added that: “underneath that information system is other information systems as well. We're upgrading that and going forward. So there's a lot of policy and procedures, there [are] statutes, there is staffing, there is computer systems, software systems, there is a lot that has been presented to the committee and I would be happy to address any or all of those if you want.”
Though Hamilton said he doesn’t have an exact timeframe for the bill, he said it will be while LePage is still governor, and that he expected the panel would hear from him soon.
The second phase of OPEGA’s investigation is ongoing.
This phase focuses on the problematic areas identified in the investigation’s first phase and the ways the issues can be remedied so that another child doesn’t have to suffer the same fate as Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick.
Erica Thoms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org