Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

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Legislators appear poised to delve into the nitty gritty of child welfare policy.

The Judiciary Committee today will hold public hearings on two bills that would reverse a 2018 law in order to prioritize family reunification in Maine’s child welfare system. A third bill also up for a public hearing today in the committee from Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, would establish an investigative commission of lawmakers and experts who will present research and proposed reforms to the child welfare system.

The reunification bills, proposed by Rep. Lori Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach, and Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, would restore language stripped by former Gov. Paul LePage and the 128th Legislature last August, after the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick, allegedly at the hands of Kennedy’s parents and Chick’s caregiver.

At that time, LePage proposed a reflexive package of new bills, including one criminalizing mandated reporters who failed to properly report cases of abuse or neglect, but that one never gained traction with lawmakers. His other statute change proposal aimed to de-emphasize family reunification as a route for caseworkers when handling abuse or neglect cases. LePage and others pointed to systemic failings within the Department of Health and Human Services, including factors that kept Kennedy in the home with her parents despite allegedly suffering chronic abuse, as reasons for the law changes.

Gramlich’s bill would alter the LePage phrase requiring that “reasonable efforts be made to rehabilitate and reunify families” only when a child’s safety is not at risk, to “give family rehabilitation and reunification priority.” Hymanson’s bill would replace “reasonable efforts” with “best efforts.”

The changes are minor and will arguably make little difference in the day-to-day work of child welfare caseworkers. A report completed in February year by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability found a frustration among frontline employees who felt the “top-down” state and department policy changes last year were “out of touch,” and there was a “lack of training or clear guidance” directing “how a change was to be put into practice.”

But the proposals, two of several related to child welfare this session, are emblematic of a Legislature that continues to grapple with how best to use its power to improve a struggling system.

Maine shifted its tack on child welfare policy toward reunification after the death of Logan Marr at the hands of her foster mother in 2001. In the years to follow, the number of children in Maine’s foster system winnowed and Maine was lauded by national groups as a leader in its handling of child welfare cases. But with a multi-year audit of the state’s child welfare system underway and recently released DHHS data that show more than 20 children have died since 2017 amid reports made to the department about their safety, expect lawmakers to continue flexing their power to remediate system shortcomings.

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are in and the lower chamber could vote on two high-profile bills on vaccines and school mascots. The Senate and House of Representatives are scheduled to convene at 10 a.m. The House could take initial votes on high-profile Democratic bills that would repeal most exemptions to school vaccine requirements and prevent public schools from having mascots referring to Native Americans or their culture.

Those bills are aimed at increasing vaccine opt-out rates among kindergarteners and an ongoing controversy around Skowhegan’s “Indians” mascot. Gov. Janet Mills’ administration supports the vaccine bill and has encouraged schools to give up Native American mascots while stopping short of calling for a statewide ban in a nod to local control.

The Senate could take votes on bills already endorsed by the House, including proposals that would restrict cellphone use in schools, require utilities to provide annual rate disclosures to customers and disqualify lawyers from being elected as district attorney if their law license has been suspended in the past 10 years.

The busiest legislative committee hearing on Tuesday will be on a ‘Green New Deal’ proposal from a freshman Democrat. The Legislature’s energy panel will take testimony on Tuesday afternoon on the Green New Deal proposal from Rep. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro. It has gotten national play in progressive circles because of the similarities between it and the schismatic federal proposal from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, but it is largely a framework that would leave major decisions to committees set up in the bill.

The financial services committee will hold a hearing on a bill to allow state-chartered credit unions to provide financial services to marijuana businesses and the transportation committee will work on bus safety proposals. See the full schedule here.

Reading list

— The state employees tasked with putting in place rules and fees for a legal marijuana market released a draft on Monday. The 74-page draft rules include sections on licensing, general compliance, general tracking requirements, advertising, product safety, waste management, packaging and labeling, enforcement and fees. After public comments are collected, the new Office of Marijuana Policy aims to present the rules to legislators before the end of session in June. Mainers voted in November 2016 to legalize recreational use of marijuana, but two legislatures and two administrations have yet to settle on a system to implement sales and oversight.

— The fight against a domestic ‘gag rule’ on abortion services will move to a federal court in Bangor on Wednesday. U.S. District Judge Lance Walker will consider whether rules that limit what health care providers who receive Title X funding can tell patients about access to abortion services violate the U.S. Constitution and should be scuttled. Maine Family Planning, the state’s only direct recipient of the federal Title X funds, in March sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is one of at least five legal actions pending in federal courts around the country seeking to keep the restrictions from taking effect May 3.

— Home sales in Maine dipped last month. March is typically a slow month for sales of existing single-family homes, but the decline marked the fourth straight month in which the numbers of homes sold was lower than during the same month in the previous year. Real estate sales figures released Monday show that 36 fewer Maine homes sold last month than in March 2018. The median sale price for homes sold in March 2019 decreased to $210,000 statewide, down slightly from $212,000 in March 2018.

— Bangor city councilors still don’t want people who live in residential neighborhoods to keep chickens in their backyards. On Monday night, city councilors voted 5-2 not to reconsider lifting a municipal prohibition on raising chickens in neighborhoods classified as residential. Currently, Bangor ordinances only allow residents to keep chickens in the rural and agricultural sections of the city.

Pain and gain

I take four ibuprofen when I get a splinter, so I can’t fathom the notion that intentionally exposing oneself to pain builds character or in some other way enhances a person’s life. Maybe it’s a dynamic that people who live with regular pain can’t comprehend.

But just because I can’t relate to it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the story of Casey Streeter, as told by the BDN’s Troy R. Bennett. Streeter nearly lost his leg in a logging accident, then used the hope of a return to the boxing ring as motivation in his recovery.

In essence, the prospect of getting punched in the head spurred him to work through a long, painful rehabilitation process. Or maybe it was the prospect of punching other people in the head.

In any case, I tip my cap to Casey. Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

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