Report on child protection failures spurs legislators to rethink privacy, red-flag laws

Good morning from Augusta, where a policy response to the deaths of two young girls who might have fallen through the cracks of Maine’s child abuse prevention system is taking shape.

One thing was clear Thursday from the release of a preliminary report from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability: Everyone involved recognizes the need for changes in how community members, law enforcement officers, school employees and state officials recognize and respond to children who are in danger. Some of the most potent outrage during a morning hearing hosted by the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee was caused by the fact that current confidentiality laws are blocking the dissemination of information that could help fix the problem.

“We just can’t make good policies when agencies are shielded from accountability by laws that we have passed,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who co-chairs the committee. The report presaged what is sure to be an emotional public hearing on the issue next Thursday, followed by the committee developing recommendations for the Legislature, but it’s already becoming clear what some of those proposals will be.

People who encounter children on a daily basis need to do a better job of recognizing when they’re in trouble. The OPEGA report noted that in one of the cases, there were no crystal clear indications that the girl was being abused but “greater information sharing among several parties may have prompted further action.” OPEGA suggests installing a system of periodic reassessments and a major boost in guidance and training for mandated reporters — such as law enforcement and school officials — particularly around what constitutes “reason for suspicion.” Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, who serves on the committee, said it’s “crystal clear” that the process needs an overhaul.

Agencies need more workers and resources. OPEGA noted that partially due to an imbalance between workload and the existing capabilities of the state’s Office of Child and Family Services and contract Alternative Response Program, cases are slipping through the cracks. Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, called it “imperative that OCFS has adequate funding, staffing and resources to keep children safe.” One issue is at the front line: there needs to be a quicker and more complete response when people call the state’s child abuse reporting line, 1-800-452-1999.

Existing rules and procedures need to be followed more closely. The words “compliance” and “consistency” appeared multiple times in the report in reference to both state agencies and private agencies working on contract.

There needs to be a better process for recognizing and prioritizing the most serious cases. Those include children who are in “imminent” risk of physical abuse, emotional maltreatment, neglect and school truancy. That will require much better coordination among multiple agencies and possibly the clearing away or amendment of confidentiality rules which currently stand as barriers to that process.

These are broad brush strokes, and the brass tacks in this issue will begin to emerge more clearly next week. That’s when agencies and officials at the ground level will convene in Augusta to offer their perspectives, which will undoubtedly range from big ideas to adjustments to minutiae. There will be flood of information and proposals that, unfortunately, will take time to debate and implement. That’s time that a lot of endangered Maine children don’t have, noted Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who said what virtually everyone is thinking: “It’s driving me crazy to sit here knowing this is going on. … I hope we’re not going to wait for the entire package to be done before doing something.”

Rocky roads ahead?

If lawmakers can’t pass a $100 million transportation bond, Maine’s transportation department predicts dire consequences for the construction industry. One of the key issues that was tied up when the Legislature adjourned in early May was a $100 million transportation bond. The Maine Department of Transportation has relied on borrowing for the last three years to help fill gaping holes in their work plans. If the state doesn’t get a bond this year, things could be bad.

State information provided by the Associated General Contractors of Maine, a construction industry group, said the bond would support 2,850 jobs that wouldn’t materialize without it and represents one-third of highway and bridge work slated for 2019. There would be virtually no funding for port and rail projects and a program providing $4.6 million in state funding in 2019 to joint projects with municipalities would be “decimated, if not altogether cut.”

There are signs that the impasse could be breaking. Rep. Drew Gattine, a Westbrook Democrat who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Tom Winsor, the top Republican on the panel, said Thursday that members of the committee could meet as early as next week to take a fresh look at stalled bills, bond proposals and other spending members that have been locked in limbo..

Funding to implement voter-approved Medicaid expansion remains a huge obstacle. Final action on any of the bills would require a special legislative session, and the time crunch will intensify as we get closer to the July 1 start of a new fiscal year. Let’s hope this does not end up being their soundtrack.

Today is the deadline to switch parties for the primary

If you’re enrolled in one political party but want to switch to the other, you have to do it today in order to vote in your new party in the June 12 primary election. You’ll need to skedaddle to your municipal office today in order to satisfy a 15-day waiting period for your switch to become official. If you’re not enrolled in a political party, you can join a party anytime, including on your way into the polls on Election Day. Here’s your soundtrack.

Reading list

  • Lawyers made their arguments on Thursday in the lawsuit seeking to force the LePage administration to expand Medicaid. Advocates for Medicaid expansion framed the lawsuit as a narrow issue, saying the Department of Health and Human Services could easily file a two-page expansion plan with the federal government that it was supposed to file in April. But a lawyer representing the state said it “cannot do anything” without funding from the Legislature.
  • The woman of accused of killing Marissa Kennedy just had another child. A lawyer for Sharon Carrillo said gave birth on Wednesday. It’s the third child for Carrillo, 33, and her husband, Julio Carrillo, 51, who were charged with murder in February in the death of Kennedy.
  • A water taxi is offering ‘boycott’ fares to Islesboro residents enraged by state ferry fee hikes. The owners of Quicksilver, a shuttle that can carry 24 people back and forth between the island and mainland, cut its rates as a show of solidarity with Islesboro residents who say the state’s new ferry fee structure is unfair and unconstitutional. The Quicksilver’s lower fee is temporary, but the vessel’s owners are contemplating a more permanent reduction to compete long term with the ferry system.

A tragic but proud legacy

Monday is Memorial Day and I’ll be thinking a lot about my late grandmother. In July of 1944, her 19-year-old brother, Pfc. David Fuller of the U.S. Marines, was killed by the Japanese in the bloody Battle of Saipan, where 3,400 Americans were either killed or went missing.

There’s more to the family story. My grandmother’s mother died when my grandmother was 5 years old and just after her parents had David. They lived in a duplex on Hallowell’s Winthrop Street. My grandmother’s uncle and his family lived on the other side.

My great-grandparents had five other kids. It got difficult for my great-grandfather to raise the baby after his wife died, so the baby went to his brother and David grew up on the other side of the house as my grandmother’s cousin.

They didn’t find out that they were siblings until he was about to leave for war. My grandmother, a strong woman, never got over the loss. My father was named David and I got that as my middle name. Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

Programming note

The Daily Brief will not publish on Monday, May 28, in observance of Memorial Day. We will return on Tuesday, May 29.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and 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.

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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.