AUGUSTA — Governor Paul LePage signed four of five bills into law Friday, Sept. 7, with the aim of improving the state’s child welfare system, which came under heavy scrutiny following the beating deaths of two Maine children in December and February.
In a press release, LePage wrote that his administration has conducted “an extensive internal review of child welfare practices and procedures within the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The results of that review have led to both internal reforms implemented by [DHHS] and statutory reforms embodied in the legislation.”
DHHS is also subject to an ongoing investigation ordered by the Government Oversight Committee (GOC) and undertaken by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Oversight (OPEGA), which is currently in the second part of its two-phase investigation.
The investigation began after the Feb. 25 beating death of then-10-year-old Marissa Kennedy, allegedly at the hands of her mother and stepfather, Sharon and Julio Carrillo. Both Carrillos were arrested and charged with depraved indifference murder.
The investigation also looked into the December death of then-four-year-old Kendall Chick, who reportedly died after being abused by her grandfather’s then-fiance Shawna Gatto. Gatto has also been charged with depraved indifference murder.
The bills, now signed into law, cover a variety of issues within DHHS and measures to improve and resolve their methods.
Acting DHHS Commissioner, Bethany Hamm, said the laws will allow the state to effect real change within our child welfare system.
Hamm was named as acting DHHS Commissioner after then DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton stepped down from his post Aug. 31, nearly a year ahead of time.
While Hamm acknowledged that the reforms won’t solve all of the system’s problems, “they are a critical step forward as we work to improve a system that protects so many Maine children.”
Two of the bills signed into law, LDs 1920 and 1921, will provide child protective services (CPS) caseworkers with availability of additional information to them “as they review reports of child abuse and neglect, ultimately ensuring the whole scope of the case is taken into consideration during these important assessments,” Hamm said.
LD 1922, which was also signed into law, allows CPS caseworkers to place priority on the safety and wellbeing of the child involved, rather than having reunification be the main focus.
LD 1922 places the priority on “what is in the best interest of the child when determining permanent placement options, whether that be through the reunification process, permanent guardianship, or adoption. Children who have fallen victim to abuse or neglect have already been through enough, and it is important that we are putting their needs first,” Hamm wrote in the press release.
The last bill signed into law, LD 1923, deals with wage increases and additional support for CPS staff.
“CPS staff will receive pay increases and additional support through added staff and resources; foster families will receive higher reimbursement to help offset the cost of fostering a child; and the state as a whole will benefit from a more efficient information system that can better keep up with growing demands,” Hamm wrote.
LePage’s proposed bill on increasing the penalties for mandated reporters who fail to report suspected abuse was not signed into law. This bill, LD 1919, would have made failure to report a criminal offense, punishable by possible jail time or fines.
LD 1919 was met with criticism by those who pointed out that reports were made by concerned mandated reporters, only to have DHHS fail to follow through. Currently, a mandated reporter failing to report suspected abuse is a civil violation.
A suggested amendment to the bill would have specified that the failure to report would have to be a knowing and intentional violation to be subject to legal penalty, though no form of the bill was signed into law.
Gov. LePage has previously come under fire for slashing funds earmarked to help the state’s neediest residents and children.
Hamm wrote that the new reforms “serve as a foundation for future improvements, many of which will result from additional external reviews of Maine’s child welfare system.”
She expressed gratitude to Gov. LePage for the “work he has done to put forth these reforms and shepherd them through the legislative process.”
Hamm ended her press release by noting, “we still have more work ahead of us and we remain committed to that process as we work to ensure our system is effectively and efficiently protecting these vulnerable Maine children.”
Erica Thoms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org