AUGUSTA — The Mills administration plans to begin requiring child care workers to be fingerprinted, reversing a policy stance by former Gov. Paul LePage that cost the state $800,000 in federal grants this year.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is finalizing rules that, when enacted, will add fingerprinting to the criminal background checks currently required for all employees at licensed child care facilities who have unsupervised contact with children.

Maine was supposed to start the fingerprinting by September 2017 as part of a federal grant program that subsidizes child care costs for lower-income families. But LePage never implemented a change that he described as “bureaucratic over-regulation,” even after state lawmakers overrode his veto in 2018 of a bill that required the fingerprinting.

As a result, Maine lost 5 percent – or $800,000 – of the roughly $25 million the state was slated to receive this fiscal year through the federal Child Care Development Block Grant program.

Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services at DHHS, said the $800,000 “penalty” was deducted from Maine’s grant amount for the first time this year. But Landry recently told lawmakers that his office was working to bring the state back into compliance on fingerprinting and another licensing issue.

“I want to be clear that I do not believe these situations were the result of a lack of dedication on behalf of our staff or our stakeholders but, instead, reflect the fact that, at times, the previous administration’s priorities differed from those set out at the federal level,” Landry said.

Whether to require fingerprinting with mandatory background checks of child care workers has been debated for at least four years in Maine.

In 2016, the Legislature directed DHHS to craft rules to comply with new federal guidelines for background checks – including fingerprinting – on adults who work in child care facilities. While the state already mandated criminal history checks of workers, fingerprints are run through the FBI’s national database in order to flag convictions for sexual abuse or other crimes in other states.

But child care providers raised questions about cost, the time it would take to conduct fingerprint checks and how the program could affect an industry that already struggles with recruitment and high staff turnover. In response, lawmakers established a working group to study the issues and report back.

That led to passage of a second bill in 2018 requiring DHHS to implement fingerprinting requirements based on the working group’s recommendations. But LePage vetoed the bill, calling it “a bridge too far” and an example of going from requiring “basic safety precautions to bureaucratic, over-regulation.”

“I did not support teachers being fingerprinted, and I do not support further expansion of fingerprinting in this instance,” LePage wrote in his veto letter of the bill. “I cannot support overburdening businesses, and I cannot support invading people’s privacy by forcing them to give up biometric information without cause.”

Lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected LePage’s veto in July 2018, voting 33-0 in the Senate and 127-15 in the House to move forward with fingerprinting of child care workers.

But DHHS did not commence the rulemaking process until nearly a year later, six months after LePage left office and Mills took over. The process was further delayed after rulemaking restarted again last month “due to a new legal interpretation for one of the rules,” DHHS said.

DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said the department plans to implement the fingerprinting requirement sometime this year. The proposed rules will be subject to a public comment period once they are drafted.

Rep. Joyce “Jay” McCreight, a Harpswell Democrat who sponsored the final bill, said there was “great resistance” from the LePage administration to following the federal guidelines on fingerprinting. The administration would not even allow representatives from the State Bureau of Investigation to speak with the working group about the issue.

While the potential loss of $800,000 in federal money was a concern at the time, the bigger issue was making sure children are protected, especially in home-based child care settings that have the least oversight.

“It was about the safety of the kids,” McCreight said Thursday. “With the youngest kids, and the most vulnerable kids, it just didn’t make sense that we wouldn’t be doing fingerprinting as part of the background checks.”

Some of the opposition to the bill focused on concerns that contractors such as carpenters, plumbers or other non-staff members working in the home would have to be fingerprinted. But lawmakers added language making clear that the requirement only applies to people with unsupervised access to children.

Additionally, lawmakers addressed concerns about cost by requiring the state to pay for fingerprinting child care workers out of the federal grant money. The total cost of implementing the requirement – including hiring several additional staff to process the background checks – was estimated at $1.1 million for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

But June Holman, a Portland child care provider who helped lead opposition to the fingerprinting rules during the debates from 2016 and 2018, said she does not believe the requirement will have the desired effect.

“For our industry (in Maine), this has not been a big issue,” Holman said. “There is no incredible need here.”

First, Holman said she and other child care providers are already required to check the criminal history of potential employees in every state where they have lived as well as whether they have a history of child abuse or sexual abuse. Additionally, fingerprinting checks take so long to process that they will prevent child care facilities from filling urgently needed jobs, potentially driving some out of business for lack of staffing.

“It will harm child care because you cannot get fingerprinting done in a timely manner,” Holman said. “And the harder it is to find child care and the more regulations you put on me, the more I have to charge.”

But McCreight, a retired social worker who worked in family therapy, said research shows that early-childhood trauma can have severe, lifelong effects on individuals. So McCreight said taking additional steps to vet people who work with young children was worth it.

“I’m glad that we are finally putting it in place because it was about child safety,” she said.

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