The departure of two high-level managers in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday left some social services providers surprised and concerned about the fate of vulnerable children and Mainers struggling with addiction.
Guy Cousins, director of the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, and Therese Cahill-Low, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, are no longer with DHHS. A source close to the situation who asked to remain anonymous said both were fired on Wednesday morning.
Cousins was a longtime DHHS staff member, joining the Office of Substance Abuse in 2006 and appointed its director in 2008 under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. Three years later, he also became acting director of Adult Mental Health Services, and the two departments officially merged in September 2012.
Patricia Kimball, executive director of Wellspring Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services in Bangor, said she was shocked to learn of Cousins’ departure, describing him as an advocate for improving access to addiction treatment and recovery programs.
“I’ve been saying the Serenity Prayer all day,” she said. “I have to accept those things I cannot change, and I can’t change this decision.”
Neither DHHS nor Gov. Paul LePage’s office commented on the departures. Cousins could not be reached and Cahill-Low declined to comment.
LePage has emphasized enforcing the state’s drug laws over addiction treatment in responding to Maine’s drug abuse problem. In March, he proposed spending $2 million to hire more drug agents, judges and prosecutors, just as other New England governors promoted better support of treatment programs. Maine lawmakers ultimately killed that proposal.
Cousins focused more on ways to help individuals with addiction to get healthy and become productive citizens, rather than repeat offenders landing in and out of jail, Kimball said.
“The governor’s approach is all about accountability,” said Kimball, who also serves as board president of the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs. “Guy Cousins’ approach is … that treatment is accountability but done in a very different way.”
“Guy jokingly said once that he’d like to be the director of the department of hope,” she added. “That’s just how he saw his role.”
Cousins has been replaced by Sheldon Wheeler, who was named acting director of the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, according to an email Ricker Hamilton, the agency’s deputy commissioner of programs, sent to DHHS employees Wednesday. The email states that Wheeler has 25 years of experience in the nonprofit, private and public sectors. Wheeler previously worked in the substance abuse office as associate director of quality, management and resource development; and as policy development manager and the director of housing resources.
Cousins held Wheeler in high regard, Kimball said.
With the departures, DHHS has lost two managers who collaborated to serve many shared clients in need of overlapping services, Kimball said.
“Substance abuse is one of the major components of why children are removed from homes,” she said. “They have to work together.”
Cahill-Low was appointed director of the Office of Child and Family Services in September 2011, after serving as acting director since June of that year. In appointing her, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew credited Cahill-Low for developing “excellent relationships with service providers, families and staff.”
Her office oversees a broad array of services, including child welfare, adoption, foster care, child care and Head Start, and behavioral health programs for children with special needs.
“We need someone in there who’s really looking out for the best interests of children and families,” Claire Berkowitz, executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance, said.
Cahill-Low’s departure raises many questions, including whether it signals a changing approach by DHHS toward child and family services, Berkowitz said. Maine has reduced the number of children in state custody in recent years, moving toward programs that place vulnerable kids with relatives while ensuring their safety and supporting families, Berkowitz said.
“Taking kids out of homes isn’t always the best solution … We need to be looking at that and making sure we don’t go backwards on policies the state has enacted,” she said.
Hamilton will oversee the Office of Child and Family Services until an acting director is named, according to his email.
Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, a former assistant attorney general serving on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said senior staffing decisions ultimately lie with Mayhew.
“These are really important positions and they need to be staffed by people who are experienced and know these programs,” he said.
BDN State House reporter Mario Moretto contributed to this report.