The needless deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy have prompted the Maine Legislature and Gov. LePage to evaluate the Department of Health and Human Services and its role in preventing, investigating and providing solutions to the neglect and abuse of children in Maine. While new proposed legislation in the wake of the deaths of these children may improve child protection protocols, it may be worthwhile to evaluate existing laws regarding mandatory reporters, required training and options available to all of us (the general public) to increase accountability both within and outside of DHHS.

It wasn’t so long ago (2001) that Logan Marr’s death prompted the very same public scrutiny we are witnessing today. DHHS is a government agency that is pulled in many political, fiscal and personnel directions. It has many dedicated child protection caseworkers who are poorly paid yet expected to deal with the underbelly of our society. Most of us can’t fathom the real-life situations these caseworkers deal with on a daily basis. Like any government agency, DHHS will always have to deal with poor performers (at all levels), shifting priorities and the vagaries of a four-year election cycle. In the long term, DHHS needs our help in holding itself accountable. This includes documented training for all mandatory reporters, and options available to mandatory reporters (and others) when they believe DHHS has not adequately responded to reports of suspected abuse or neglect.

Maine law already imposes a duty on many individuals in Maine who interact with families and children on a professional basis to report known or suspected child abuse or neglect to DHHS. This includes all health care practitioners, educators, law enforcement, child care personnel and even school bus drivers and film processing workers. In 2015, the Legislature amended the law to require that all professions listed as mandated reporters complete DHHS-approved training at least once every four years “on an individual basis.” Significantly, the training does not address further steps that a mandated reporter (and others) may take if they believe that DHHS’ response to a report is deficient.

When DHHS becomes aware that a child has been neglected or abused, it is authorized to file a child protection petition, which requires the court to schedule a hearing on the petition as soon as possible. However, DHHS is not the only entity authorized to file such a petition. Law enforcement officials may file the petition. More significantly, “three or more persons” are authorized by Maine law to file such a petition. The so-called “three-party petition” law, according to a 2014 Maine Supreme Judicial Court case, contemplates the filing of this petition by non-DHHS parties to bring to the court’s attention circumstances where “an officer, neighbors, friends, teachers or others believe that a child is in jeopardy when the Department, for whatever reason, does not act.”

Many people are aware they are mandated reporters and are required to contact DHHS for known or suspected child abuse or neglect. It’s not clear how many of these people have received the required training or whether they are aware of the three-party petition option. Sometimes a phone call to DHHS may not be enough. Reports of suspected abuse or neglect to DHHS increased from 18,630 in 2016 to 19,567 in 2017. Things seem to be getting worse.

A flood of three-party petitions may not significantly affect the welfare of children in Maine, and a timely filed one may not have been enough to save the lives of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy. However, the awareness of its existence by “neighbors, friends, teachers or others,” as well as all mandatory reporters, can do no harm. The mere mention of a three-party petition in a report to DHHS may be all it takes to prompt appropriate action by DHHS – especially when follow-up by DHHS seems necessary.

Schools especially should be cognizant of the training requirements for mandatory reporting and should develop protocols to address inadequate responses by DHHS – including a three-party petition if necessary. We’ve been reminded yet again that a child’s death can result when we don’t appropriately respond to child abuse and neglect. Filing a three-party petition and expeditiously obtaining court involvement may enlighten the petitioners that DHHS has fulfilled its responsibility. However, it may also expose human and/or systemic failures at DHHS that need to be addressed immediately – and certainly sooner than the public scrutiny prompted by Logan Marr, Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy.

 

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