AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislation that would allow staffers of children’s homes or residential care facilities to search the backpacks or travel bags of residents received strong support in committee, according to its sponsor.
The bill, LD 470, was introduced by Rep. Dustin White, R-Washburn, who himself works as a residential counselor and behavioral health professional in The County. White drafted the legislation and was among the supporters who testified during a public hearing Friday before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
The residential facilities in question care for children with diverse needs who must be placed outside their own home. White said officials of such facilities are not allowed to search the bags of the residents when they return to their residential homes after going to school, visiting doctors or participating in outside activities.
“The bill was very well received,” he said Monday. “Every member of the panel asked questions, and no one spoke in opposition.”
If passed, the staffers of children’s homes or residential care facilities would be able to search children’s backpacks or travel bags after an absence if there is a reasonable suspicion of illicit activity. The searches cannot be intrusive, and the administrators may confiscate anything that poses a health or safety risk.
“I believe this initiative works two fold by allowing facility administrators to take precautionary measures for the purpose of ensuring the safety of these children, in addition to other residents and staff,” White told the committee. “It also puts in place a benchmark and reference point for all residential care facilities to follow while likewise protecting the rights of these children and affording consistency between state funded facilities, therefore allowing easier enforcement.”
White said that while one concern was that residents might bring in guns or knives when returning to a facility, that was not a major issue here in Maine. He said that of greater concern is youngsters bringing in items or substances they might use to harm themselves.
The lawmaker noted that children often are in group homes and residential homes because they are exhibiting unsafe behaviors, such as self-harming, which can include cutting themselves with razors, needles and broken glass to swallowing poisonous substances or drugs. All of those items easily could be smuggled into residential facilities, he said.
“This bill is especially important for kids with self-harming behaviors,” White said. “If passed, this bill will help keep them safe, the rest of the residents safe and the staff safe. That is really the overall goal of the bill.”
Sarah Squires, public policy director for the Disability Rights Center of Maine, also testified in support of the bill, saying the organization believed the representative had worked well with their group and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine to protect the rights of children when crafting the measure.
An official with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine confirmed last week that the organization worked with White on the bill but did not take a position on it.
White said that while the measure would allow staffers to check the residents’ bags, they still could not personally search the children.
The legislative panel is expected to vote on the bill following a work session on it Friday, April 17, in the Cross Building.