AUGUSTA — State lawmakers are set to take action Thursday on a package of bills offered by Gov. Paul LePage aimed at fixing flaws in the state’s system for protecting children from abuse.

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted Monday to support three of LePage’s bills, including ones that would give the Department of Health and Human Services not only additional resources, but also more authority to look at an individual’s criminal history, including activity that did not result in a criminal charge.

Another bill would allow DHHS to retain files on unsubstantiated child abuse claims for up to three years, doubling the current retention period.

But the committee rejected proposals by LePage to set criminal penalties for those required by law to report child abuse if they fail to do so, and a measure that would shift DHHS’s focus away from family reunification as a priority. The committee also increased the additional staffing proposed for the child protection system to 16 new supervisors, 16 new caseworkers and eight new support staff positions, said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta.

Katz said LePage’s original proposal only included 16 additional supervisors, even after then-Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton told lawmakers that the state planned to add as many as 75 more caseworkers to keep up with reports of abuse.

The total cost of the staffing increases was not fully known Tuesday, but the additional supervisors would cost about $1.2 million, Katz said. Also increased were wages for caseworkers, supervisors and others who work on the front lines. The committee voted to raise hourly wages by $5, and added $1 per hour more for caseworkers who obtained a master’s or higher-level degree.

The committee also voted to provide DHHS with $800,000 to contract for clinical help with especially difficult cases involving mental health issues. That funding would also be used to provide mental health support for caseworkers themselves because they are often exposed to traumatic situations in the line of duty, Katz said.

TECH UPGRADE, staff increase

The committee also earmarked $8 million for upgraded computer systems, but that money is only meant to pay for the start of an overhaul that is expected to cost $30 million and would rely on federal matching funds. Katz said it would take at least two years to fully replace the system under a “best-case scenario.”

“This is for replacing what everyone agrees is a completely archaic and almost useless platform at the moment,” Katz said.

Also in the package is $3.5 million to increase reimbursement rates for foster care providers and adoption programs.

Katz said the proposal to add 16 supervisors but no caseworkers was puzzling to many on the committee. He noted that those supervisors would be drawn from existing caseworkers, “exacerbating what is already a shortage in the field.” That’s why the committee voted to add funding for more caseworkers as well, he said.

“The irony, to the extent there is questionable funding in the bill, is that those 16 supervisor positions are still in there,” Katz said.

As the approved bills went out on divided reports – meaning the committee was not unanimous in its decisions – Katz said he was unsure whether they would gain enough support to pass the Legislature, and if they did pass, whether they would survive a possible veto by LePage.

LePage’s office declined to comment on the committee’s work Tuesday.

“We don’t comment on bills until they hit his desk,” said Peter Steele, LePage’s communications director.

DEBATE ON FAMILY REUNIFICATION

LePage has made a push toward shifting the focus away from keeping families together, especially in cases where a child may still be at risk, but the committee voted 5-3 against reducing the emphasis on family reunification after children are removed from their homes.

All of the bills will face additional votes Thursday in the House and Senate, and any of the measures could be amended from the floor of either body. That makes their prospects uncertain in a Legislature where Democrats hold only a slim majority in the House and Republicans hold a one-seat majority in the Senate.

The series of legislation aims to reform a system with flaws that were exposed by 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. Their deaths prompted a wave of criticism that both children had somehow fallen through the cracks in a system fraught with problems, ranging from caseworker overloads to inefficient reporting and record-keeping systems.

DHHS responded with an internal review of its child protection office, and the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee also launched its own investigation into the deaths.

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which is directed by the oversight committee, determined that one of the deaths was the result of state child protection workers failing to follow policies and procedures in assessing her placement outside of her home. In the death of the second girl, OPEGA determined there were widely scattered reports of potential abuse or neglect, but information that might have led to a reassessment of the child’s situation that would have prompted officials to intervene was not shared at critical moments.

OPEGA is now engaged in a longer-term investigation of the DHHS child protection system, which the committee hopes to have completed in November.

LePage, whose story of growing up in an abusive home is well-known, has taken a hands-on approach to the administration’s review of its child protection services.

“I have personally experienced the trauma of an abusive home, and I want to ensure that we all do what we can to prevent future tragedies,” he said in a July radio address. “I’ve personally reviewed the case files of the two girls who were killed, but I’ve also reviewed many other cases that haven’t made the news. We cannot eradicate evil, but we can do better to protect children.”

BENEFITS OF ACCESS TO RECORDS

Bethany Hamm, the acting DHHS commissioner, told the Health and Human Services Committee on Monday that broadening the department’s access to criminal information would help it better protect children.

“It is not uncommon for an individual to be accused of a crime and never to face charges for that crime as a result of various issues, including difficulty in prosecuting certain types of crimes, difficulties in the investigation, etc.,” Hamm said. “Confidential criminal history information includes information beyond just the crimes an individual has been convicted of, and the additional information would be invaluable to child protection services staff as staff try to determine whether a child has been abused or neglected or is at substantial risk for abuse and neglect.”

Mary-Erin Casale, spokeswoman for House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said the bills would be on the Legislature’s calendar for action Thursday, with votes on four of the bills starting first in the Senate, while one of the bills will be first voted on in the House, which is set to convene at 10 a.m.

‘JUST THE START OF REBUILDING’

Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, a physician and House chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, characterized the package of approved bills as a “good start.”

“Every child deserves to be loved, cherished and kept safe from harm. We heard from caseworkers, child advocates, law enforcement, legislators, medical experts and many others involved intimately in ensuring our kids are protected,” Hymanson said in a prepared statement. “It’s important to note that these bills are just the start of rebuilding the child welfare system. We have heard time and time again that we need to do more to make sure children in harmful situations don’t fall through the cracks. This work must, and will, continue.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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Correction: This story was updated at 9:15 a.m. Wednesday Aug. 29, 2018, to correct an erroneous reference to Sen. Katz as the chairman of the Health and Human Services committee. He is a committee member.

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