Why lawmakers tweaked parts of the LePage child welfare reform package

Good morning from Augusta, where a legislative panel whittled down a ream of bills from Gov. Paul LePage aiming to reform Maine’s embattled child welfare system to endorse a narrower package on Monday ahead of the Legislature’s return to Augusta on Thursday.

In an evening series of votes, majorities of a legislative committee added funding for caseworker positions and shot down two of the Republican governor’s more controversial ideas — criminalizing a mandated reporter’s failure to report abuse or neglect when they know or reasonably suspect it and turning Maine slightly away from a policy of family reunification.

The votes bode well for child welfare reform to pass in the final act of a historically gridlocked Legislature after the high-profile deaths of two girlsMarissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick. Lawmakers also heard that those two deaths didn’t alone create a crisis and one caseworker warned of placing more money in the hands of “incompetent administrators.”

Most of what LePage proposed drew support from advocates and the committee. LePage teased these five bills in May and floated them officially last week as part of what a spokeswoman called a “first wave” of reforms to the system after the deaths of the 10-year-old Kennedy in February and the 4-year old Chick in December. Other proposals are likely to be put forward in a biennial budget proposal to be left behind by the outgoing governor.

The biggest bill was one enhancing the system with $21.4 million in funding to replace an outdated case management system, increase pay to foster parents, fund administrative positions, boost caseworker wages and incentivize training. The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted 6-2 on Monday to add 16 caseworker positions and eight case aides to that, though it’s unclear how much that will cost.

The panel also largely endorsed a proposal to allow the Department of Health and Human Services to retain records of child welfare cases in which allegations were unsubstantiated and use them in future cases. Now, they must be expunged after 18 months and LePage wanted them retained forward. The committee increased the expungement deadline to five years and unanimously backed a bill giving caseworkers access to criminal history information.

But the other changes ran into opposition from the committee after interests groups for doctors and superintendents opposed the bill that would criminalize the failure to make mandated reports and some wondered if the proposal weakening law making it a priority to reunify children with families would lead to an uptick in foster placements.

Some of the front lines had little faith in the system. Internal changes made by DHHS since the deaths have already drawn criticism from caseworkers, with more kids removed from their families in the first four months of 2018 than in the same period last year.

Lindsey Duca, a caseworker in a South Portland office that only covered Cumberland County until July and now covers Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties as well, said 15 caseworkers have left their positions since January in an office with 35 of them and the system is “overloaded.”

Another caseworker in that office, Kaylene Godwin, said more funding is “only a first step” and that she feared that it would be “placed into the hands of incompetent administration.” The upshot was that fixing the system would be a long process.

Shawn Yardley, a former state caseworker and CEO of Community Concepts, which does early childhood education and child abuse prevention work, said “headline cases” can give the appearance of a new “crisis” where there has always been one.

“The crisis has existed since I’ve been doing this work in 1980,” he said. “There’s never enough resources and decisions get made based on the available resources.”

The Legislature could fly through votes on these proposals on Thursday, but things can always get complicated in a hurry in the State House. The Legislature will return on Thursday for votes on these bills. They could go quickly on top of some other business left from a marathon 2018 legislative session, but their work has often been complicated by disputes.

If all goes smoothly, they will likely come back in September to handle any LePage vetoes and adjourn for the year.

Reading list

  • LePage was back in Augusta and resting on Monday after a weekend health episode. A spokesman for the governor said on Monday that LePage had been released from a Bangor hospital and was “getting ready to return to work in the next couple of days.” LePage’s office has released scant information about why the governor ended up in the hospital, saying he felt “discomfort” on Saturday. LePage was taken by ambulance from New Brunswick — where he was visiting family — to Presque Isle and finally to Bangor. The office of Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said it was informed in real time of the governor’s hospitalization, which hasn’t happened on at least two past occasions when LePage underwent surgery. Thibodeau would serve as acting governor if LePage was incapacitated.
  • A June incident in Dixmont was the first time Maine police used a bomb robot to end a standoff. The use of a bomb robot to end a standoff in the case of Michael Grendell, who allegedly shot at a neighbor and state troopers on consecutive days around his home in June, has raised questions about how much force police should use against people with apparent mental health conditions and who pays for the damage. The head of the Maine State Police has said that the bomb was a “last resort” after an hours-long standoff, but Grendell’s house was destroyed and it was left to the town and volunteers to clear the rubble.
  • Amtrak will continue to operate the Downeaster despite the line’s lack of automatic braking technology. There was a scare about the future of the Maine-Massachusetts line on Monday, when a trade magazine suggested that any Amtrak lines without automatic braking technology could lose service by year’s end. But Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said the Downeaster doesn’t need the technology because fewer than 12 trips per day run on the line and the route “isn’t in jeopardy.”

Mental air conditioning

It happens pretty much every year. Temperatures soar just as teachers and students roll back into Maine schools. I would feel sorry for them, but they just had 10 weeks off.

Decades ago, I taught at a school with a metal roof and laminated walls — surrounded by asphalt. In early September, when they weren’t trying to run away, students would see if they could melt straws, gum and erasers on the roof in the afternoon sun.

The “school starts heat wave” is not a new thing or unique to Maine. Two Massachusetts cities plan to dismiss students early because of unbearable conditions in schools there. Actually, I have worked in both those cities. Conditions are always unbearable in Haverhill and Lawrence, but usually not this hot.

Anyway, the kind folks at the Farmer’s Almanac offer a gentle reminder that this won’t last. They predict a long, cold, snowy winter. So if the heat is getting to you, hold copies of the new almanac against each temple, hydrate and sing songs from “Frozen.” But for Disney fans who want a deeper cut on a hot day, 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 the political team 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.