Advocates for domestic violence survivors and families in the child welfare system are asking Maine lawmakers to focus on bills that increase resources for parents, rather than on legislation that places a greater burden on households under investigation for abuse and neglect.

Lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee held public hearings for two bills on Monday. One calls for the removal of a child from a home where there’s an adult who has been convicted of a violent crime. The other would create a two-year pilot program that would assign attorneys to parents whom the state has begun investigating for potential abuse and neglect prior to the state filing a petition in court for a child’s removal, which is when the state normally appoints counsel.

Lawmakers have been grappling with child welfare reform for several years. The Office of Children and Family Services reported in 2022 that more than two-dozen children had died the previous year after having contact with the agency’s child protective system or as a result of homicide, abuse or neglect. State lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee sued the Department of Health and Human Services last fall to gain access to confidential case files for these children. They appealed a ruling denying them access in January.

An annual report by the state’s child welfare ombudsman earlier this year found “substantial issues” in more than half of the cases they reviewed, where outcomes were not in the best interest of the children or their safety.

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, told other legislators Monday that most of these deaths occurred in homes where there were substantiated reports of domestic violence. He is sponsoring a bill that would allow the state to remove a child from a home if they’ve been spending time alone with an adult who has been convicted of domestic violence or any other violent crime, unless that adult has completed counseling through an intervention program endorsed by prosecutors.

“I can’t in good conscience not do something that I think can help save lives and help improve the situation for many of these families,” Baldacci testified.


But several advocates for child welfare reform and survivors of domestic violence said they could not overlook a “host of issues” in Baldacci’s bill that would make it harder for survivors of domestic violence to keep their children, including a provision that would punish non-offending parents for allowing their kids to spend time with another adult who has a record of violence.

Andrea Mancuso, public policy director for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said the training prescribed by the legislation does little to prevent violence on its own.

“There is no treatment for domestic abuse and violence,” Mancuso told lawmakers. “It’s only helpful if people are motivated to change. These programs are ineffective for those who just go and sit in the chair for 48 hours a week.”

Associate Director of Child Welfare Services Bobbi Johnson said Monday said that current law is adequate for her office’s needs. The bill as written would punish more than those who have a history of domestic violence, Johnson said, and runs the risk of causing nonviolent survivors of domestic violence further trauma.

“The unintended consequences of this bill would be too great,” Johnson said.

The Maine Children’s Alliance testified that the bill overlooks the “complex and nuanced” needs of families in Maine’s child welfare system, many of whom are also dealing with poverty, poor access to food and housing instability.


“We need to intervene with the specific supports families need,” said policy and communications associate Melissa Hackett for the Maine Children’s Alliance. “These decisions are best left to be handled on a case-by-case basis.”

The other legislation discussed Monday would authorize the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services to develop a two-year pilot program to provide legal counsel to “pre-petition” parents whom the state has begun to investigate but who are not yet the subjects of any official court action.

The bill would authorize the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services to design the pilot program, which would cover up to 30 low-income families living in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties. The commission will implement a “warmline” for information and referrals.

At the very least, parents would be connected to an attorney – but bill sponsor Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, said the pilot program could also involve case managers, social workers and parents who have experience with the child protection system and can serve as mentors. Stover said a panel of experts and lawmakers who spent last year researching pre-petition programs around the country recommended including roles other than attorneys.

“This is an opportunity for those non-offending parents, where child safety is not a concern at that time, where things can be addressed at a lower level,” Stover said.

Attorney Julian Richter, who works with MCILS attorneys representing parents facing petitions, told lawmakers Monday that this bill will save Maine a lot of money in avoided judicial costs. But it’ll also save families the trauma of being separated.

“All of that can be avoided by intervening early, getting prevention services involved with the family, and figuring out how to meet a child and a family’s needs without a court case,” Richter said.

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