AUGUSTA — A public hearing held Monday on a handful of child protection reform bills revealed strong support for additional investments but also laid bare wider systemic problems that have worsened, in part, because of a continued erosion of social services.

Kendall Chick, left, and Marissa Kennedy

Dozens testified before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on five bills unveiled last week by Gov. Paul LePage to overhaul a system that has come under fire in recent months after the deaths of two girls – 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset in December and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs in February.

The most comprehensive bill would commit an additional $21 million to increase pay for caseworkers, increase the reimbursement rate for foster families, replace an antiquated information system and add 18 new supervisor positions.

Other bills would: 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 the Department of Health and Human Services to access public and confidential criminal history records for the purposes of investigating possible abuse or neglect; and reduce the emphasis on family reunification after children are removed from homes.

State child protection caseworkers who spoke Monday said the bills proposed by the governor are welcome but inadequate.

“Passing these bills is a start but it’s not going to be enough,” said Kaylene Godwin, who works out of the DHHS South Portland district office. “My fear is that the funds will be placed into the hands of an incompetent administration.”

Godwin also said she couldn’t understand why state officials who are in charge of carrying out the proposed reforms haven’t taken responsibility “for their role in breaking the system.”

Lindsey Duca, who works out of the South Portland office as well, said the disconnect between caseworkers and “the people making decisions” is massive.

Acting DHHS Commissioner Bethany Hamm speaks Monday before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “I can’t think of a more tremendous opportunity for us to come together as a department, as lawmakers, as stakeholders, for the common good,” Hamm said in urging lawmakers to support reform bills.

“We feel like we’re on a sinking ship and all we have is a slotted spoon to bail out the water,” she said.

Bethany Hamm, acting DHHS commissioner, outlined the bills to lawmakers and stressed that they were just the start of reforms that would almost certainly continue into the next Legislature. She said more reforms could emerge out of a final investigative report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability and from the state’s Child Death and Serious Injury Panel.

“I can’t think of a more tremendous opportunity for us to come together as a department, as lawmakers, as stakeholders, for the common good,” Hamm said in urging lawmakers to support the bills.

While there was significant support for more funding, there was a clear divide on where the money should be spent. Many who testified Monday said more frontline caseworker positions are needed, not supervisors.

Christine Alberi, the state’s child welfare ombudsman, was among those who said the data suggests the system would benefit from more caseworkers. She said caseloads have essentially doubled over the last several months, at a time when the workforce has dwindled.

“(The funding bill) is the most important thing we’re discussing here today,” Alberi said.

Another major point of debate Monday was on the bill proposed by the governor that would clarify language in state law that gives priority to family reunification in child cases.

LePage has been outspoken about this and says the state has gone too far in trying to keep children with family members.

Many testified that the change would give caseworkers more flexibility.

Others, though, said shifting the focus away from family reunification does not reflect best practices and they worried that it could result in far more children in state custody at a time when the state can’t handle the influx.

One woman, Courtney Allen of Augusta, testified that she regained custody of her children two years ago after getting treatment for substance use disorder. She said she was grateful that caseworkers worked with her, but she’s worried the bill would send a message that caseworkers don’t have to work as hard to reunify parents.

“Effectively you are turning your backs on us and our children,” Allen said.

Shawn Yardley, CEO of the Lewiston-based social services agency Community Concepts and a former longtime child protection caseworker, said so many of the problems within the system have been caused by dwindling resources, not just within the agency but everywhere.

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“Child protection should be an entitlement, but it’s always funded with available resources. That’s a fundamental flaw,” he said. “The crisis has existed since I’ve been doing this work. If we just put more money on the front end, not the back end, I think we’d do a whole lot better.”

Yardley explained that addiction services, mental health services, housing resources and welfare all have been cut dramatically in the last several years. That has put stress on families, and research is clear that families under stress are far more likely to see abuse or neglect.

The biggest opposition Monday was on the bill to criminalize failure to report abuse or neglect by mandated reporters. Several who testified said the state doesn’t have an adequate system in place to handle calls now and many more said they have never been concerned that reporters are not reporting.

“This is a solution in search of a problem,” Yardley said.

When lawmakers resumed work late Monday after the public hearing, they voted quickly to recommend lawmakers not support that legislation, 8-2. They continued to debate the remaining bills and some lamented the narrow timeline to work the complex reform bills ahead of Thursday, when the full Legislature is due to return.

“This is a much too speedy process for such weighty issues, but we are trying to get something started,” said Rep. Patty Hymanson of York, the committee’s Democratic co-chair.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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