AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage suggested on Thursday that Maine’s child welfare system may leave too many vulnerable kids with their families and said he will unveil executive orders aimed at shoring up the system after the recent deaths of two girls.
The Republican governor gave few details about his proposals, but his Department of Health and Human Services is being probed by the Maine Legislature and doing an internal investigation after the recent deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick.
Maine’s child welfare system is under the most scrutiny that it has seen since 2001, when the death of 5-year-old Logan Marr at the hands of her foster mother spurred changes that made the system a national model by spurring a move toward family support and reunification.
“I think reunification in the state of Maine is the priority and I think it’s the wrong priority,” LePage told reporters on Thursday. “I want to do what’s best for the children.”
LePage said that he would likely be issuing executive orders to change the structure of the child welfare system to fix “major, major holes.” His office said they would come after internal investigations are finished.
The governor said those orders could include changing how reports of abuse are logged by the state. LePage also said he would ask the Legislature to update DHHS’ software and that caseworkers need “more training” because the jobs are “stressful.”
Police say that Kennedy was killed in February in Stockton Springs by her mother, Sharon Carillo, and stepfather, Juilo Carillo, who are both charged with murder. Chick was killed allegedly by her grandfather’s fiancee, Shawna Gatto, in Wiscasset in December.
LePage has said that DHHS contacted both girls’ families before their deaths. Bangor’s superintendent of schools has said officials reported potential abuse of Kennedy when the girl lived there. A woman who cleaned the apartment building she lived in said she also contacted DHHS.
In 2009, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national advocacy group that worked on the overhaul of Maine’s system during the early 2000s, has cited research saying that children are “almost always” better off in family settings and said the state had been overusing group homes.
Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee and one of the lawmakers who requested the legislative probe, said LePage is considering legitimate questions about the system.
But she said answers to them may not be known until the Office of Professional and Government Accountability’s investigation into the system is finished and that his Thursday remarks were hasty and looked like “window-dressing.”
“You can’t react like that. You can’t build a system by reacting so quickly to something,” Hymanson said. “You have to examine it and that takes patience.”
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