AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said on Thursday he wants to steer Maine child welfare priorities away from family reunification and that he’s willing to call legislators back to address a broken system after a legislative watchdog’s report on two recent child deaths.
The Republican governor appeared at a public hearing held by the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on a report released last week the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in February and 4-year-old Kendall Chick in December, where advocates flagged what they said were deep-rooted problems in the department’s practices.
“They should not have died,” LePage said of Kennedy and Chick, “and we — I say ‘we’ collectively — the legislative branch, the executive branch, the judicial branch of this state government has to do better to make sure children are protected.”
Kennedy was allegedly killed by her parents and Chick by her grandfather’s partner. Not much information has been released on the cases — which are in courts now — but Bangor’s school superintendent said school officials contacted the Department of Health and Human Services on “a number of occasions” while Kennedy attended school there.
The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which is controlled by the committee, wrote a report released last week that faulted DHHS’ Office of Child and Family Services for “poor job performance” and “inadequate supervision” in one of the cases and said the risk of child abuse and neglect “was not necessarily evident” in the other.
LePage has castigated his department after the deaths, blaming Kennedy’s death on a “comedy of errors.” On Thursday, he said the crux of the problem was the state’s policy focusing on family reunification in child welfare cases and an outdated computer system for tracking cases.
That focus on family reunification came after the 2001 death of 5-year-old Logan Marr, who was suffocated by her foster mother, Sally Schofield, who prosecutors said wrapped 42 feet of duct tape around the girl’s head, suffocating her. Schofield was released from prison last year after serving 14 years for manslaughter.
Marr’s death was emblematic of Maine’s aggressive tack in pulling children from homes in the late 1990s, but her death spurred a move toward family reunification that the Annie E. Casey Foundation and other groups have held up as a national model. For children in state custody, Maine policy cites a goal of “preserving their family, reunifying their family, or achieving permanent placement in another family.”
But LePage said the state is skewing too heavily toward reunification and state law must be changed to focus on “what is best for the child.” DHHS released a report recommending that and updating the Legislature on changes made to the system since an internal review.
The governor also said that the department’s computer system is “outdated,” difficult to use and state officials have known that for 15 years — spanning his administration and the administration of former Gov. John Baldacci.
Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said that she has been approached by whistleblowers who highlight problems with that system, but that workers “do not have enough time on each case” because of inadequate staffing levels and recent policy changes.
Mark Moran, a social worker who coordinates family and support services at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, bolstered that case by saying that his workers often wait between 30 and 45 minutes on hold to report potential abuse to a state caseworker, calling that a “potential barrier” to reporting.
LePage also said that Maine should criminalize failure to comply with Maine laws mandating that certain people report abuse or neglect of children. That idea faced pushback. Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, a physician, said that it would be functionally “difficult to enforce that.”
After Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, asked LePage if he’d be willing to call the Legislature back by summer’s end to address child welfare issues, the governor responded by saying that his administration is preparing legislation and that he would be willing to call a special session.
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Correction: Sally Schofield served 14 years of a 17-year sentence for manslaughter in her foster child's death. She is not in prison and has been released. It was an editing error.