Gov. Paul LePage has proposed $21.4 million in additional spending to improve the state’s overburdened child protection system, a significant investment that also is coupled with major reforms to how caseworkers do their jobs.

Kendall Chick, left, and Marissa Kennedy

Under the governor’s most far-reaching bill, An Act to Improve the Child Welfare System, the spending would include $8 million for a new information system, $1.5 million to add 18 new supervisory positions, $4.4 million to increase compensation for existing caseworkers and administrators, and $3.8 million to increase the reimbursement rate for foster families, which hasn’t been adjusted in 15 years.

A leading national expert on child welfare said that although the increased spending is good, LePage’s effort to overhaul Maine’s system is misguided and potentially dangerous. A former state child protective services director also cautioned that a major overhaul is not the right approach.

In a statement this week announcing the spending bill and four narrower pieces of legislation, Acting Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Bethany Hamm said this was just the beginning of a series of reforms.

“These bills are the down payment on a bigger investment in our children, the future of our state,” she said.

The narrower bills would seek to do the following: create a criminal penalty for mandatory reporters who fail to report suspected abuse or neglect; allow the state to retain all records of unsubstantiated abuse claims that currently are expunged after 18 months; authorize DHHS to access public and confidential criminal history records for the purposes of investigating possible abuse or neglect; and amend existing law to reduce the emphasis on family reunification after children are removed from homes.

All five bills have been scheduled for public hearings Monday before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

Maine’s child protective system has been hobbled for years but has come under increased scrutiny this year after two deaths, of 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset in December and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs in February. In both cases, warning signs of abuse or neglect appeared to be missed or ignored.

Collectively, the bills proposed by LePage would constitute the biggest overhaul of Maine’s child protective services agency in more than a decade. But there is likely to be significant debate when the bills are presented formally next week.

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Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform and someone who has closely followed Maine’s system for years, had a mixed opinion of the draft legislation. He said some proposals – such as pay raises for workers and a new information system – are obvious and needed reforms.

“But on balance this package of bills represents the triumph of fear and ignorance over proven success,” he said. “It will make all of Maine’s children less safe.”

Wexler said LePage’s insistence on moving away from family reunification belies all the research that says children are best served by staying with their own biological families. He said Maine needs to provide resources to those families, rather than create a system where children are automatically removed and sent to the foster care system.

“Maine spent years transforming its system from a national disgrace into a national model. Now, Gov. LePage is trying to finish what he started years ago – taking a wrecking ball to what had been, relatively speaking, a model child welfare system and leaving the rubble for the next governor to clean up,” Wexler said.

Jim Beougher, who headed the Office of Child and Family Services under Gov. John Baldacci and oversaw major reforms after the death of 5-year-old Logan Marr in 2004, said he doesn’t understand the need for a massive overhaul.

He pointed to the findings of a recent investigation into the two girls’ deaths conducted for the Legislature by its watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

“As I understand from the OPEGA investigation, the deaths of those two girls were in part the result of policies not being followed,” he said. “That seems to be a failure not of the policy, but the administration of that policy.”

State caseworkers have made the same point in interviews with the Portland Press Herald.

One of the biggest shifts implemented during Beougher’s tenure was a concerted effort by caseworkers to work with families to keep children in their homes. In most cases, families only needed a little guidance and support to eliminate the potential for abuse or neglect. In recent years, Beougher said, that support has eroded.

“Caseworkers that are trained properly and that have resources are really good at working with families,” he said.

The recent shift away from family reunification and working with families to keep children in homes already has led to an increase in child removals and has put more strain on the foster care system. The governor’s spending bill seeks to address that in part by increasing the reimbursement rate for foster families from $10 per day to $18.50 per day at the lowest level, and from $60 to $70 per day at the highest.

The bill also would provide enough funds to increase the per-hour wage for caseworkers and supervisors by $5, and by an additional $1 for those who hold or obtain a relevant master’s degree. In some cases that would be a wage increase of 25 percent. The goal there is to both recruit good workers and retain the workers who are there now.

Maine currently has about 300 caseworkers and 66 supervisors in child protection. However, the workforce has been about the same size since 2012 and has experienced significant turnover in the past few years as caseloads have become unmanageable.

Nearly all of the money to pay for the governor’s bill – $19.7 million – would come from the state’s general fund. The rest would be split between special revenue funds and federal expenditure funds.

Although the comprehensive bill would provide more money for existing caseworkers, and would add 18 new supervisor positions, it does not call for more front-line workers.

Last month, then-DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton told members of the Government Oversight Committee – which had authorized the OPEGA investigation into the child protection system after the deaths of Chick and Kennedy – that the administration was prepared to ask for 75 new caseworker positions. Three weeks later, though, LePage said that he would not ask for funding for new caseworkers, at least not this year.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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