Gov. Paul LePage vowed to issue executive orders to address systemic problems with Child Protective Services in the aftermath of the beating death of a 10-year-old Stockton Springs girl.

LePage, speaking to reporters Thursday at the State House, said he is “seeing major, major holes” in the system, and he is working with Maine Department of Health and Human Services officials to improve CPS.

“We just need to beef it up,” he said.

LePage, a Republican, said CPS needs to replace antiquated computer software and provide additional training to agency employees, but he didn’t mention extra staffing to handle reports of suspected abuse or neglect. The details of the executive orders will be released soon, he said.

Police say Marissa Kennedy had been beaten at home for months by her mother and stepfather before dying Feb. 25 of battered child syndrome. Sharon Carrillo, 33, and Julio Carrillo, 51, have been charged with depraved indifference murder. Since Marissa’s death, activists have called for a thorough examination of Maine’s system to protect children.

Neighbors and Bangor school officials told the media that when the Carrillos lived in Bangor, DHHS was notified of suspected abuse in the home. The Carrillos moved to Stockton Springs last fall. School officials there have refused to detail what steps, if any, were taken with Marissa, who was enrolled in Searsport Elementary School. Police said she stopped attending in November.

DHHS officials have refused to comment on the specifics of Marissa’s case, saying those details need to be kept confidential while the criminal case is pending.

LePage said he’s been working for the past two weeks on how to improve the system.

According to data reported to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Maine’s CPS workforce has remained at 145 from 2011 to 2016, but the caseload per worker has increased.

The number of completed reports per CPS caseworker per year in Maine increased from 55 in 2011 to 73 in 2016, the latest year for which federal data is available.

Also, according to Maine DHHS, reports of suspected child abuse and neglect have jumped 31 percent since 2008, from 6,313 cases to 8,279 in 2016. LePage acknowledged that CPS caseworkers have stressful jobs, and many suffer from “burnout.”

“Some of these caseworkers have to visit 10 homes per day,” LePage said.

EXTENSIVE RECOMMENDATIONS COMING

In response to follow-up questions from the Portland Press Herald, LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said the governor will make comprehensive recommendations after an internal DHHS investigation is complete.

“There are no specific recommendations as yet, no cost estimates and no time frame because these investigations are not yet complete. There may also be other internal policy changes as well as legislation he may submit. He will use all tools at his disposal,” Rabinowitz said in an email.

Separately, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee has ordered a watchdog agency – the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability – to investigate the deaths of Marissa and Kendall Chick, a 4-year-old girl who died in December. OPEGA will also conduct a review of Child Protective Services.

Patty Hymanson, D-Wells, co-chair of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said she’s encouraged that LePage is taking the issue seriously, but she believes the OPEGA investigation will be more thorough and in-depth.

LePage also indicated that CPS needs to change its focus.

“I think (family) reunification in the state of Maine is the priority. I think it’s the wrong priority,” he said. “This is the dialogue we are not having. What is best for the child? It could be reunification in some cases. In other cases it might not be.”

But Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a Washington-based nonprofit think tank, said the scientific research on the topic is overwhelming that children do better when the state works to keep them with their families when possible. The next best alternative is to have a relative care for the child, such as grandparents or aunts and uncles. Removal should be “rare,” he said.

“When you hear about these horrific cases, don’t listen to your gut instinct and do the exact opposite,” Wexler said. “We as a society are underestimating the enormous trauma to children that is inherent in removal.”

Claire Berkowitz, executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for children, said that while government officials are examining the issues within DHHS, they need to make sure they are doing so in a comprehensive way, taking the time to diagnose problems and come up with difference-making solutions.

“I’m glad they want to make change, but they need to make sure they’re making the right changes and understanding what the issues are that need to be addressed,” Berkowitz said.

HUNDREDS MORE CHILDREN IN STATE CARE

The number of children in state care – including foster care, kinship care and in institutions – declined from nearly 3,000 children in the early 2000s to about 1,300 per year under the administration of Gov. John Baldacci. Since LePage took office, the numbers have increased to 1,852 in 2017, although there are no clear reasons for why more children are in state care.

Some experts say the opioid crisis could be a contributing factor because it has led to record numbers of deaths and potentially more unstable parents. Also, confirmed cases of physical abuse of children in Maine rose 52 percent from 2008 to 2016, even though there were no increases in other forms of child abuse, including neglect and sexual abuse. Neglect cases declined and sexual abuse cases were about the same, according to Maine DHHS statistics.

LePage said the system also needs to do a better job of sharing information with outside agencies, and that DHHS workers need to be able to recognize when there are numerous complaints about the same family. He said the current system does not make it easy for employees to notice when there are many complaints about the same family.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: joelawlorph

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