LePage offers details on how he wants to fix Maine’s child welfare system

Good morning from Augusta. An initial round of long-teased proposed reforms to the child welfare system from Gov. Paul LePage was released on Wednesday ahead of the Legislature’s return to the State House next week.

A spokeswoman for the governor called the five bills to be considered by month’s end “a first wave” of proposed changes to the system, which is reeling after the recent deaths of two Maine girls. Caseworkers have already criticized the administration’s internal policy response.

The wording of four of those bills was released on Wednesday. Another more sweeping bill that the Department of Health and Human Services said would pay caseworkers more — to combat a 60 percent turnover rate as measured by the state employees’ union — and replace an outdated new computer system to track cases hadn’t been printed as of Thursday.

There will be a lot for legislators to agree with in the package, but some items will have difficult roads to passage. Three of the four LePage bills released on Wednesday are sponsored by Republican legislators and all of them matched ideas that the Republican governor has aired in public already.

Funding for the system should prove popular in the Legislature, but the most controversial proposal could be the one that would make it a misdemeanor crime for a mandated reporter to fail to make a report of abuse or neglect if they have reasonable cause to suspect it.

In a statement, the administration said the bill would “heighten awareness and importance” around the need to report. Some opposed that concept at a public hearing in May, saying criminalizing failure to report likely wouldn’t have the desired effect.

Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, the co-chair of the legislative committee overseeing the child welfare system, said on Wednesday that she was “keeping an open mind” about all of the bills until a Monday public hearing. However, she said mandated reporting didn’t appear to be a problem in the recent cases.

Before the February death of Marissa Kennedy — allegedly at the hands of her mother and stepfather — Bangor’s school superintendent said officials made numerous reports to DHHS while the girl attended school there. LePage in March blamed her death in part on mandated reporters.

The other three bills released on Wednesday would codify an approximation of LePage’s belief that the state should shift from a default policy of family reunification in these cases to focusing on what is “best for the child” and allowing DHHS to access criminal history records and enter evidence from expunged child welfare cases into newer cases involving the same family.

Maine shifted to a reunification-heavy policy after a girl was killed by her foster mother in 2001. Hymanson said the state shouldn’t swing a “pendulum” too heavily back toward more removals.

We’re still waiting to see bigger changes that will come in the unprinted bill, investigations and a budget blueprint for the governor’s predecessor. The fifth bill to be considered by the Legislature is an omnibus one that will address caseworker salaries and the computer system, add supervisory positions, boost foster parents’ pay among other items, according to DHHS.

LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said more recommendations will come from the Child Death and Serious Injury Review Panel and as part of a biennial budget blueprint to be left by the administration for the next governor, who will be elected in November.

Reading list

  • The governor launched a new salvo against Maine’s largest city on Wednesday. In his weekly radio address, LePage ripped a proposal, championed by Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, to allow noncitizens to vote in municipal elections. The Portland City Council recently chose not to send the question to a citywide vote in November, but it remains on the table for future consideration. LePage regularly sparred with Strimling’s predecessor, Michael Brennan, but seemed to have a more benign relationship with Strimling, who was elected in 2015. However, faulting the city’s progressive policies and pushing for tighter immigration strictures have been hallmarks of LePage’s tenure as governor.
  • A conservative professor at a University of Maine System campus is suing his union and employer over the union’s political positions. Jonathan Reisman, who teaches economics and public policy at the University of Maine at Machias, filed the suit in federal court earlier this month. Funding for the suit comes from think tank in Ohio, that is backing similar cases in Ohio and Minnesota. The legal arguments come on the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year that scrapped a 1977 decision that allowed states to require public employees to pay some fees to unions that represent them, even if workers choose not to join a union.
  • To end Maine’s opioid epidemic, society must view addiction as a brain disease and treat it with medication, according to a specialist who treats people with addiction. Dr. Trip Gardner told a Bangor audience on Wednesday night that people suffering from addiction are able to recognize the harm they’re causing themselves and those around them, but the choice to use isn’t their own. Gardner, who serves as chief psychiatric officer and medical director of Homeless Health Services at Penobscot Community Health Care, recommended medication-based treatment for people who suffer from addiction.
  • A new name might be part of the University of Southern Maine’s makeover. The second-largest school in the University of Maine System is looking at rebranding as a way to burnish its reputation and help attract new students. Glenn Cummings, president of USM, wrote in an email to alumni on Wednesday that University of Maine System officials will consider “whether a new name for our university might better extend our geographic reach, and enhance our reputation and appeal among college-bound students here in Maine and beyond.” Folks with memories that stretch back to the 1970s might remember when USM was called the University of Portland-Gorham — or PoGo for short.

Student body left

Finally, we’ve found a national ranking in which Augusta ranks higher than Portland.

In a study released Tuesday, Move.org ranks Augusta as the third most affordable college town in the United States. Portland lags far behind — ranking 15th.

I lived in Augusta proper for 13 years and have been a resident of Greater Augusta since 1990. So I am well aware of what “charms” the capital area has to offer. Campus life is not one that quickly comes to mind.

The ranking describes Augusta as “picturesque, quaint and affordable” while touting the fact that gas is cheaper than in any of the other 25 college towns on the list.

The University of Maine at Augusta and Purdue University Global Augusta Campus are listed as the two universities or colleges in Augusta. The latter occupies a former Staples building at a mall. The former specializes in online and commuter classes.

I guess the underlying message is that Augusta is a great place to attend college — as long as you don’t actually have to live there. Or maybe it’s that Augusta is such a great college town that it doesn’t need a campus. Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by 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 leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com or rlong@bangordailynews.com.

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.