A Maine lawmaker said that he’ll renew efforts to make the state’s child welfare program its own state agency, even though legislation to do just that failed three months ago.
State Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, discussed that effort Tuesday as he staged a walk from Old Town to Stockton Springs to memorialize the Maine children who have been killed in recent months, allegedly by their parents.
Diamond made stops in Old Town, Bangor, Brewer and Stockton Springs. Most are the hometowns of children who have been killed since the start of June. Stockton Springs is also where 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy lived before she was beaten to death by her mother and stepfather in 2018.
Diamond was accompanied by legislative colleagues from the Bangor area along the way. He planned stops in Chelsea and Wiscasset on Wednesday.
The event started in Old Town to honor Hailey Goding, a 3-year-old who died from fatal exposure to fentanyl in June. Her mother, Hillary Goding, is charged with murder and manslaughter in her daughter’s death.
The toddler’s death is one of four since June that have prompted a fresh round of scrutiny for the state’s child welfare system and outside probes into the deaths.
Diamond said more children will die before a change to Maine’s child welfare system comes.
“The problem is, if you work in this system, and work in it long enough, you know it’s going to happen again. And I know what’s going to happen again,” he said. “The system is broken. We can’t just let it go on like it has.”
Legislation that Diamond introduced earlier this year would have split the state’s child welfare program off from the Department of Health and Human Services, where it’s currently housed.
That measure was shot down by the House of Representatives in June, but Diamond reiterated his support for the concept Tuesday, saying that breaking child welfare into its own agency would allow for greater oversight.
“Until we can open up those big doors and look inside of DHHS, and then down into the Office of Child Family Services, until we can take a peek in there and put the sunshine on it…then we’re not going to make a lot of change,” Diamond said.
DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell said the creation of a new agency would undermine work that’s already underway to make improvements at the state agency. That work includes collaboration with Casey Family Programs, a national group that DHHS has brought in to probe the recent child deaths, on evaluating the department’s policies and procedures.
“We care deeply about child safety and wellbeing and are working to do all we can to learn from the recent child deaths and improve our approach to child welfare,” Farwell said. “The death of a child is a tragic loss — for that child’s future, their family, their community and our state.”
During the stop in Bangor, Diamond was joined by Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, who echoed Diamond’s calls for increased scrutiny into the child welfare system.
Baldacci has introduced a legislative proposal that would elevate the charge of endangering the welfare of a child from a class D misdemeanor to a felony if a child died or was seriously injured due to a reckless disregard for their safety. Legislative leadership will have to sign off on the proposal before the full Legislature can consider it next year.
As for Diamond’s ability to break off the child welfare program into its own agency, the clock is ticking, and the path is complicated.
Diamond can’t run for re-election next year, as he’s term-limited. During the year that remains before a new Legislature is elected, Diamond can only propose the same legislation that’s been rejected if two-thirds of lawmakers in both the House and Senate allow it.
He said he plans to craft legislation that would accomplish the same goal of creating a separate child welfare agency, but wouldn’t have to withstand the two-thirds vote to be considered.