AUGUSTA — Governor Paul LePage released a letter May 31 that he wrote to the Government Oversight Committee (GOC), responding to its invitation that he attend the public hearing about the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Oversight (OPEGA) results released last week. He said it is was, “inappropriate at this time to have a representative of [the Department of Health and Human Services] (DHHS) at any level address questions without first being able to be advised by counsel as to what can and cannot be said.”
The hearing took place today, May 31, in Augusta, where members of OPEGA, GOC, and DHHS representatives were among other relevant parties that were supposed to gather to answer questions about the investigation’s findings.
LePage, who penned the letter May 30, the day before the public hearing, said, “given the restrictions in state and federal law regarding what can be discussed in a public forum due to the need to protect confidentiality and the ongoing prosecutions where we seek justice for the deaths of two children, it is inappropriate at this time to have a representative of DHHS at any level address questions without first being able to be advised by counsel as to what can and cannot be said.”
LePage attended the hearing and read his letter before the committee.
According to his press secretary Julie Rabinowitz, “he read the letter to the committee and then answered many of their questions because he has read all the case information. He provided important context and provided supporting information for the recommendations that are made in the letter. The Governor’s Twitter feed has quotes from his presentation at the committee and also clarification of his willingness to call a special sense for them to deal with this issue.”
The results of the OPEGA investigation determined that DHHS failed to act and follow protocols during the case of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy, who died after months of violence at the hands of her mother and stepfather, Sharon and Julio Carrillo, 33 and 51, respectively.
The investigation also looked into the handling of the case of four-year-old Kendall Chick, who died violently in Wiscasset in December, reportedly at the hands of her grandfather’s then-fiance Shawna Gatto.
LePage said: “It would be awkward at best and potentially jeopardize the criminal proceedings if an official were to inadvertently reveal confidential information in their attempt to answer the questions being raised by the committee. Unscripted, off-the-cuff questions and answers would jeopardize the careful work that has been done so far by DHHS, [the Department of Education], [the Department of Public Safety], the Attorney General’s Office, [OPEGA].”
“To that end, therefore, we will continue to answer OPEGA’s questions in writing, as we have been, so the answers can undergo the appropriate confidentiality review by the Attorney General’s Office,” he added.
A report with DHHS’s initial findings as to what can be improved in operations and management of the Child Welfare System was also included.
LePage wrote that DHHS has: “already implemented several of these reforms; these are identified in the report. Many of these reforms can be implemented with policy changes and do not require legislation. Others, including position reclassification and improved communication and management systems may require additional funding. Some reforms will require legislation.”
LePage said that first, “We will be recommending that Maine’s statutes are revised so that the priority is on what is best for the child, not family reunification. Placing the priority on family reunification forces the system and the courts to try to keep vulnerable children in a family when the best thing would be to remove the child from the situation. Parents who are unable or refuse to effectively take on the challenge of parenting should not be forced by government to remain with a child, leaving the child vulnerable to neglect and abuse.”
“Second, we must replace the outdated computer system that will provide better communication and access to case histories. More information made available in a way that makes it actionable in a timely manner will improve staff and system-wide effectiveness, producing better outcomes for the children under our care. This is an investment in our children,” he wrote.
“Third, we will request that the Legislature — for the second time in my administration — criminalize the failure to comply with the mandatory reporting statute. Mandatory reporters must not hesitate or second-guess whether they should report something that gives them any reason to suspect that a child is being abused. Making the failure to report a class E crime provides an additional incentive to ensure that mandatory reporters act promptly, saving a child’s life,” LePage continued.
He added that as “we continue our review of the child welfare system, additional statutory changes may be recommended. The overarching priority in our review is what is best for the child.”
LePage wrote that he agrees with many of the frustrations expressed that the statutes governing Maine’s child welfare system have misplaced priorities and created circumstances that make it difficult to have a full and frank discussion.
“However, we must proceed in a manner that does not jeopardize any pending prosecution so that justice is served for the children who so tragically lost their lives,” he wrote.
In conclusion, Lepage wrote: “As a person who has personally experienced the trauma of growing up in an abusive home, I take the responsibility of ensuring these reforms are implemented and the system is improved so that the people of Maine can be assured not only that a child in a crisis is provided the utmost protection but also that abusers are held accountable.”
LePage has previously come under fire for cutting the $2.2 million budget for Community Partnerships for Protecting Children, an organization that works with a wide array of local groups in an effort to combat child abuse, including parents, neighbors, faith-based groups, and law enforcement among others.
“Partners reach out and support families before they face crises, and intervene more rapidly and effectively when abuse and neglect occur. They also work to improve child protection policy and practice in ways that more reliably strengthen families and safeguard children,” its site states.
Despite LePage’s decision to cut the program’s budget, the Maine House of Representatives voted April 10 to rescue the program, at least until January when a new administration will replace the LePage administration, which will reach its term limit.
LePage vetoed that vote, saying it would limit his executive power.
Erica Thoms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org