Two state senators are spearheading a legislative effort to make it a felony to endanger the welfare of a child when the child dies or is seriously injured. Credit: Micky Bedell / BDN

If you are concerned about a child being neglected or abused, call Maine’s 24-hour hotline at 800-452-1999 or 711 to speak with a child protective specialist. Calls may be made anonymously. For more information, visit maine.gov/dhhs/ocfs/cw/reporting_abuse.

A proposal that would make it a felony to endanger the welfare of a child who dies or is seriously injured has the backing of Maine prosecutors and sheriffs.

Currently, endangering the welfare of a child is a Class D misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $2,000.

If passed, the legislative proposal would make it a Class B crime if a child died due to a reckless disregard for his or her safety, and a Class C crime if a child were seriously injured for the same reason.

Class B crimes are punishable by up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $20,000. Class C crimes are punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of up to $5,000.

Currently, a parent who leaves illegal drugs where children could ingest them can only be charged with a misdemeanor, no matter the long-term impact the drug or drugs may have on children. The proposal also would apply to parents or caregivers who leave guns where children can easily access them.

The felony-level child endangerment charge could have come into play in a number of cases in recent years.

In July, a Penobscot County grand jury indicted the parents of an 11-month-old girl who overdosed and nearly died in June on multiple charges.

Zachary Borg, 27, and Taezja DiPietro, 23, both of Corinna, were indicted on one count each of aggravated furnishing of drugs to a minor, a Class B crime; domestic violence reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon, a Class C crime; endangering the welfare of a child; and drug possession, both Class D crimes.

Investigators found fentanyl in several rooms of the parents’ home, including their daughter’s bedroom, where fentanyl was found in the child’s playpen, according to the Penobscot County District Attorney’s office. Fentanyl residue was also found on her teddy bear. 

Instead of bringing a multitude of charges against the parents, District Attorney Marianne Lynch would have been able to charge them with a Class B charge of endangering the welfare of a child, if a felony option had been available.

If there had been a felony component to endangering the welfare of a child in September 2019, the prosecutor also could have charged a Bangor mother whose 1-year-old daughter died in October 2018 of a fentanyl overdose.

Kimberly Nelligan, then 33, was charged with the Class D crime of child endangerment and drug possession, a Class E crime.

Lynch has said that felony child endangerment better fits the circumstances in both those cases.

In addition, at least twice this year, children under the age of five have fired guns left unsecured by a parent. The parents were injured in one of those cases.

If the proposed legislation were to become law, a parent convicted of a felony crime of endangering the welfare of a child, would be unable to possess firearms in the future.

Sens. Joseph Baldacci, D-Bangor, and Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, are leading the initiative as part of a wider effort to address a recent spate of Maine parents charged with injuring or causing the deaths of their children.

Maine prosecutors and sheriffs have given the proposal their support through their respective professional organizations, the Maine Prosecutors and the Maine Sheriffs associations.

The announcement was made a day before Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, was to set off on a tour with stops in towns where children have died this year.

Since June, the deaths of four children have prompted a fresh round of scrutiny for the state’s child welfare system and outside probes into the deaths.