AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted Thursday to subpoena the head of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to testify after he failed to attend a hearing on recent, high-profile child abuse deaths.

The unanimous, bipartisan vote came moments after lawmakers learned that DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton would not attend Thursday’s meeting despite assurances from Gov. Paul LePage that he would allow department representatives to participate in committee work sessions.

Gov. Paul LePage says he didn’t want Ricker Hamilton, his DHHS chief, answering questions in public and risking violations of confidentiality.

“How dumb are we to take him at his word?” Sen. Roger Katz, an Augusta Republican who co-chairs the oversight committee, said of LePage’s previous statements to the panel. “And how dumb are we not to have issued a subpoena for the commissioner to be here? We are all supposed to be on the same team.”

But LePage said in a prepared statement Thursday evening that he would not put Hamilton “in a situation where legislators could ask any question” and potentially jeopardize the confidentiality required in the ongoing criminal investigations. As he frequently does, LePage also raised the specter of lawmakers’ political motivations influencing the discussion despite the bipartisan approach taken so far on the child welfare issue by the oversight committee and the Legislature’s nonpartisan watchdog, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

“My office communicated with OPEGA that the commissioner could answer questions in writing, but would not participate in open-ended deliberations or discussions,” LePage said. “Given that this is a matter of significant public interest during an election year, we could not risk that GOC legislators would use the hearing to grandstand to score political points. As I told the GOC on May 31, we continue to have a good working relationship with OPEGA on this issue, and that my administration will cooperate.”

SCRUTINY AFTER DEATHS OF TWO GIRLS

Under the committee’s direction, OPEGA is conducting a fast-tracked investigation into the efficacy of DHHS child welfare programs as lawmakers and the LePage administration examine potential changes to the system.

Maine’s child protective services have been under intense scrutiny since two girls – 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs – died in late 2017 and early 2018.

Authorities say both girls were severely abused at home over a long period of time, and questions have swirled about why DHHS never picked up on the dangerous situations or failed to follow up on reports of suspected abuse.

Kennedy’s mother, Sharon Carrillo, and stepfather, Julio Carrillo, have been charged with depraved indifference murder in her death. And Shawna Gatto, the fiancee of Chick’s paternal grandfather, has been charged with depraved indifference murder in her death.

An initial report by OPEGA faulted DHHS for not following its own policies and procedures when assessing the safety of one girl’s placement, while suggesting agencies failed to share information that, when pieced together, might have called attention to the abuse.

On Thursday, OPEGA’s outgoing director, Beth Ashcroft, presented potential “next steps” for her watchdog agency and the oversight committee as the review continues. The committee is expected to prepare draft legislation for consideration during a special session later this year. One of the next steps is for OPEGA to prepare a plan to survey or interview frontline DHHS workers about their caseloads and the issues they face, and solicit feedback on potential changes.

But committee members expressed frustration that some of the major questions they have about the programs – such as staffing levels, vacancies, training and retention of employees – could not be answered on Thursday because DHHS did not participate.

“I look forward to asking the commissioner a lot of these tough questions that we will not have answers for at your next meeting until he shows up,” said Rep. Jeffrey Pierce, R-Dresden.

MAKING DEPARTMENT STAFF AVAILABLE

LePage has previously said that “the whole system is flawed” and spread blame for the child deaths across multiple agencies – from DHHS to schools and police – that failed to intervene.

During an appearance before the committee in May, LePage said he would be willing to call the Legislature back for a special session to fix identified problems within the child welfare system. LePage also said his administration would pursue a range of reforms, including a renewed effort to impose criminal penalties on so-called “mandatory reporters” – professionals such as teachers and doctors – who fail to report suspected child abuse or neglect, and an upgraded computer system.

During that May 31 meeting, LePage and Katz had a dialogue about whether the governor would allow DHHS staff to speak to the committee. LePage had presented the committee with an 11-page internal report from DHHS detailing the agency’s steps to address perceived weaknesses in the child protection system. The changes included more training for caseworkers, hiring two managers to oversee caseworkers, improving intake procedures and consulting with psychologists on cases, among other reforms.

The committee, OPEGA staff and DHHS officials all have struggled with how to delve into the problems within the child protection system in the midst of two major criminal investigations into the deaths of the two young girls. DHHS has, to date, cited confidentiality concerns in refusing to release more details to the public on its internal review.

“You are struggling with the same things we are, and that is not wanting to do anything in particular to interfere with the criminal trials that are going on,” Katz said to LePage on May 31. “Would you be willing to make someone from the department available at our work session to discuss the report itself?”

LePage replied: “If it’s the report itself, I’d be more than happy. That is not the issue. The last thing we would want to do for the children that passed is to interfere with the prosecution and somebody goes off scot-free.”

‘WE ARE ALL ON THE SAME TEAM’

Clearly still frustrated at Thursday’s meeting, Katz accused the governor of reneging on his pledge to allow Hamilton to answer questions on difficult issues.

“I think we have just wasted a few weeks here in an area where there is no time to waste,” Katz said.

This is far from the first dust-up between LePage and lawmakers over access to administration staff.

LePage has repeatedly denied requests from lawmakers to have representatives from multiple departments appear in-person before committees. The governor has accused lawmakers of being rude or disrespectful to his Cabinet members and has recently taken to making personal appearances himself before committees, occasionally berating lawmakers in the process. But legislators say the administration’s refusal to allow representatives to answer questions has made it difficult for the Legislature to carry out its oversight responsibilities and craft legislation that would pass muster with the governor.

Further muddying the political waters, LePage has clashed publicly with several members of the oversight committee, including Katz.

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, a Sanford Democrat who co-chairs the committee with Katz, said she hopes DHHS officials and the LePage administration are more willing to work with the committee in the future.

“It does make you wonder what they will share with us. What are they trying to hide, if anything?” Mastraccio said after Thursday’s meeting. “We are all on the same team, we are all here for the same reason. I am just baffled.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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