A bill that would save a $2.2 million child abuse prevention program is making its way through the Legislature, after the deaths of two Maine girls from child abuse in the last four months.

The LePage administration had announced in February that it would end the prevention program in September.

Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, said she’s aiming for a bipartisan coalition to muscle through the bill, which would establish a six-month moratorium on eliminating the program.

Senate President Michael Thibodeau, a Republican running for governor, is signing onto the bill as a co-sponsor, said his spokeswoman, Krysta West. A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Paul LePage did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thibodeau has been urging LePage to get personally involved in finding solutions to Maine’s system of protecting children, after the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs and 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset. The parents or caregivers of both children have been charged with depraved indifference murder for their deaths.

LePage told reporters last week that he sees “major holes” in Maine’s child protection system and he’s been working on the issue for weeks with Maine Department of Health and Human Services officials. Lawmakers also tasked the Legislature’s watchdog agency with reviewing the deaths and the system.

Marissa Kennedy had been beaten by her mother, Sharon Carrillo, 33, and her stepfather, Julio Carrillo, 51, for months before dying at home on Feb. 25, police have said.

Maine DHHS officials told nonprofit agencies in early February that they were pulling funding from the child abuse prevention program – effective Sept. 30 – because it duplicates other programs and is not evidence-based.

But those operating the Community Partnerships for Protecting Children program – which includes Opportunity Alliance in South Portland – argued that the prevention program is the most effective of its kind, based on scientific research and is not duplicating other state programs.

“We need this program,” Beebe-Center said. “It’s a grass-roots, boots-on-the-ground program. It’s just common sense that it’s better if you can prevent something from happening.”

The moratorium on defunding the program would end on April 1, 2019, ensuring that the decision on whether to continue state support would fall to LePage’s successor. Seven Democrats and five Republicans have qualified for the June 12 primary ballot in the gubernatorial election.

Beebe-Center’s bill was approved unanimously for introduction on March 6 by the Legislative Council, a difficult hurdle during the off-year session of the Legislature. Most of the bills that the Legislature considers in the off-year session are carry-overs from the previous year or emergency legislation. The bill will now get hearings and votes in the coming weeks.

The abuse prevention program started in Greater Portland in the mid-2000s but in the past two years has expanded to all of southern Maine, Lewiston, Augusta, Bangor and Belfast, thanks to additional funding by the state.

In addition to Opportunity Alliance, the other nonprofits contracted to operate the program include Penquis in Bangor, Community Concepts in Augusta and Broadreach Family and Community Services in Belfast.

In southern Maine, where the program has been established for about a decade, the program partners with about 60 groups, including schools, nonprofits, law enforcement, local governments, churches and others to identify and help families at risk of abuse and neglect. The groups have monthly meetings to talk about children most at risk and share information.

Debra Dunlap, regional director of the program for southern Maine for Opportunity Alliance, said there needs to be a pause so state officials can better see how the program works, especially in areas where it launched within the past two years.

“The whole point of CPPC is it helps to get different systems and groups working together to keep kids safe,” Dunlap said.

 

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