Who should investigate the LePage administration’s handling of child abuse reports?

Good morning from Augusta, where we’re feeling the effects of a bombshell statement from Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb on Thursday.

She said her district notified the state “on a number of occasions” that 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy, allegedly murdered by her stepfather and mother late last month, may have been abused during the during the 2016-17 school year, before Kennedy’s family moved to Stockton Springs.

A woman who cleaned the family’s Bangor apartment building has also said that she reported potential neglect to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, leading to increased pressure on the agency from lawmakers in Augusta.

On Thursday evening, Senate President Mike Thibodeau called on Gov. Paul LePage to launch a probe into DHHS’ handling of the case. The Republican from Winterport said Mainers need to know that if they report child abuse or neglect, it will be fully investigated. DHHS has not responded to questions about the situation from a number of news organizations.

Thibodeau didn’t specify who should conduct the probe, but there are resources at the Legislature’s disposal. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, said there are “a number of possible avenues” for a probe.

That could include his panel’s investigative arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which typically investigates how broader state programs are functioning rather than individual cases. He also said the attorney general’s office is a possibility.

“Clearly, from just news reports, it seems like this could have been and should have been prevented,” Katz said.

The state’s top attorney stressed a need to tread carefully while noting the case’s similarity to a landmark Maine abuse case. Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, said Friday morning that she understands why Thibodeau is calling for the probe but said her office can’t release much information while investigating the case. Two other children were in the household.

“It’s a difficult needle to thread to allow an inquiry at this time or to authorize the release of any records or information,” Mills said. “There are statutes on how and when you can disclose information in cases like this.”

Mills said the Kennedy case is “reminiscent of the Sally Schofield case.” In 2002, Schofield was convicted of suffocating a 5-year-old foster child with duct tape. The landmark case led to widespread reforms throughout the DHHS reporting system.

On Thursday, Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, submitted a bill to continue funding a $2.2 million child abuse prevention program that the LePage administration has said it will end in September. There may be more legislative action to come on the issue.

Adam Lee endorses Mark Eves in 2018 gubernatorial race

The Democratic businessman was close to running, but he’s now behind the former House speaker. Lee Auto Malls Chairman Adam Lee of Cumberland said in a Thursday fundraising email that former House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, is “the only viable progressive in the race” for the Democratic nomination to succeed LePage.

Last year, Lee was close to running himself and concerned about his party’s field. On Wednesday, he said he saw Mills and Sanford attorney Adam Cote — seen by many as the top-tier candidates alongside Eves in the 11-way primary — as “not progressive enough” and lacking experience, respectively. They’ll clearly disagree with that and everyone will look to establish progressive bonafides in the race.

Today in A-town

A task force created to study Maine’s health care delivery system meets this morning. That’s the only item on the legislative calendar. The House and Senate return on Tuesday.

Reading list

  • Democrats on a legislative committee rejected LePage’s nominee to lead the Maine State Housing Authority on Thursday. The party-line vote in the Legislature’s labor committee means that the governor’s nominee, George Gervais, must win an uphill battle to get support from two-thirds of the Maine Senate to be confirmed. Democrats questioned Gervais’ personal history and experience in housing, leading to squabbles with Republicans on the panel.
  • The governor has put forward an $88 million state tax cut package as he looks to conform Maine to the new federal regime. The plan was put out by LePage’s finance department on Thursday and is a complicated basket of changes that mostly looks to offset the negative impacts on Maine taxpayers of more or less fully adhering to the tax plan passed by congressional Republicans last year. But a top Democrat hinted at concern that corporate changes in it would help “folks who don’t need the help right now.”
  • LePage wind permit restriction plan is tangled up in procedure. The House and Senate disagree about which legislative committee should handle LePage’s proposal to restrict new expedited wind energy project permits to a portion of Aroostook County and enact a tougher approval process when it comes to the projects’ visual impact. House Democrats on Thursday refused to cede to the Senate’s position, which puts the fate of the bill in question.
  • LePage has dropped a legal fight about his administration’s refusal to release $8.4 million in federal job training funds. The administration released the funding to three regional workforce boards last month, according to officials with the organizations. The move came while the administration was being sued over holding back the funds. A federal judge ordered they be released in early January, but the administration appealed the ruling.
  • A Somerset County school district has warned its students and staff that participating in a March 14 walkout to protest gun violence will cause them to be disciplined. The superintendent of SAD 13 in the Bingham area posted the warning in an online letter to parents.

No words

It’s been a horrible week, and we’re not going to try to be flip, funny or wise in an effort to put it into perspective. Be kind to others. Be kind to yourself. Cherish life. Here’s your soundtrack. –– Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.