Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, is pictured in his committee seat on March 13, 2017. Credit: Micky Bedell / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — In a move that surprised the measure’s sponsor, the Maine Senate on Thursday endorsed separating Maine’s child welfare system from the massive health department over objections from the administration of Gov. Janet Mills.

The bill from Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, would transfer positions and dedicate another $1.7 million for 11 new employees in a Department of Child and Family Services next year. The longtime lawmaker and former secretary of state has been working on such a concept since 2001, when 5-year-old Logan Marr was killed by her foster mother in a highly publicized case.

The system gained even more attention after 4-year-old Kendall Chick and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy died at the hands of their caregivers three months apart in 2017 and 2018. It led to changes to the system under both Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage, but a 2019 report found the majority of caseworkers felt too overworked to do their jobs correctly.

Diamond said he has become frustrated by years of promises from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to fix issues and believes separating the department will allow it to focus its resources better and make problems and solutions in the system more transparent.

“We all hope that we don’t have another death, but we know the system hasn’t improved enough to make us all feel assured of that,” Diamond said during a floor speech prior to the vote.

His speech still indicated resignation to the bill’s failure. Diamond even said “it shouldn’t pass” because of wide opposition in a committee that voted 12-1 against it. But 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats voted to keep it alive, which he said “shocked” him. It still faces further votes and still has an uphill road to passage with a potential Mills veto looming.

It came after serious opposition from the Mills administration. Jackie Farwell, a DHHS spokesperson, said the bill would undermine the “significant work” the state has dedicated to improving the system by diverting resources and stalling momentum.

The state included 33 new caseworkers in its last two-year budget and hired all of them by last November. It wants 15 more in an updated two-year budget. A recent caseload report found the state would need 42 more caseworkers to handle the number of children in its care.

The money for the bill will still have to go through the Legislature’s budget committee if it clears the House and Senate. That panel’s co-chair, Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, opposed the measure, saying lawmakers have answered calls for more staffing and suggested the way to fix the system would be to meet unaddressed needs in the adult mental health system.

A report from Maine Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi — who tentatively supported the bill as a way to provide more resources to the department — found the office was still struggling to determine whether children are safe in initial assessments and in the reunification process. She recommended more training on those issues.

But the department argued in rebuttals it has been providing refresher training and is working with the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine to revise its policies and improve staff training.