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Proposal for separate child welfare department dies after Maine House fails to take action

In World
April 23, 2024

Apr. 23—A proposal to create a standalone department to oversee child welfare in Maine died in the Legislature after the House of Representatives failed to hold a vote — even though the bill had strong bipartisan support in the Senate.

The Office of Child and Family Services, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, has come under intense scrutiny in recent years following the deaths of several children from abuse or neglect after past contact with caseworkers. The office also has struggled with staffing vacancies, high caseloads among child welfare workers and a shortage of foster families.

L.D. 779, introduced by Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, would have established a Department of Child and Family Services separate from DHHS to oversee child welfare, children’s behavioral health and early childhood services with its own commissioner who reports to the governor.

“I would call it bull,” Timberlake said Monday about the fact the bill did not come up for a vote in the House. “Cow manure. It’s not right.”

The bill passed the Senate in March with bipartisan support in a 22-8 vote. It then went to the House, where Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, made a motion to table that was approved on April 9. It then sat in unfinished business for the remainder of the legislative session, which concluded April 18.

Meyer is the House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee and was part of a majority of members who voted in the committee that the bill shouldn’t pass.

She did not speak to her motion when the House tabled the bill but said in an email Monday that the bill “would actually harm the systems we’ve been working to improve” by separating child welfare and some other services for children from other programs that support families and are run under DHHS.

“There is no evidence to suggest that spending millions of dollars to duplicate administrative structure would make a meaningful difference for children and families,” Meyer said.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, did not respond to a question about why the House never took up the bill.

Timberlake believes the vote would have been close in the House but that there would have been enough support to pass it.

“I think (opponents) were worried they were going to lose it, and the safest way not to lose it is to not run it,” he said.

Still, the bill included a $4.2 million fiscal note and would have been competing for funding with other bills. The Mills administration also had raised concerns, so it’s possible the governor would have vetoed the bill had it passed the House.

DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew submitted written testimony on the proposal in January in which she voiced similar concerns to those raised by Meyer and said the department already has done significant work to reduce bureaucracy and improve programs that serve children and families.

Separating child and family services from the department that also coordinates and pays for basic needs like food supports, MaineCare, and services for mental health and substance use disorders also could reduce effective child and family supports and duplicate administrative work, Lambrew wrote.

However, she also noted that the department would be willing to reconsider its position if an in-depth review were to indicate that the cost of a new department for child and family services could improve child safety more than other investments.

A spokesperson for the department said Monday that the state also took other steps this session to support services for children in state custody, including approving $6.8 million the governor proposed in her supplemental budget to add positions such as trainers and legal aides to support child welfare caseworkers and initiate a reclassification of pay for child welfare caseworkers and supervisors.

Timberlake and other proponents of his bill argue that broader structural change is needed to correct the issues facing DHHS.

“We could have at least had the conversation and it could have been part of the conversation of what we want to do,” he said. “But to not even have the conversation, I don’t think that’s the way government is supposed to operate.”

‘CONVERSATION TO CONTINUE’

Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, co-chair of the Government Oversight Committee, which has undertaken significant work this session reviewing the Office of Child and Family Services and possible reforms, is a supporter of Timberlake’s bill and said Monday that lawmakers will continue to look at the issue in meetings over the summer.

A separate Blue Ribbon Commission to Study the Organization of and Service Delivery by the Department of Health and Human Services is also working on examining the delivery of child welfare services and is expected to issue a report on its findings by November.

“I expect the conversation to continue,” Hickman said. “The work we’re doing is important and we’re going to continue to do it.”

Timberlake, who also sits on the Government Oversight Committee, said he may end up bringing his bill back.

“My hope is to have our finger on the pulse and watch what’s going on,” he said. “Next December, if we find DHHS is not making vast improvements, I will be stepping right back forward with (this bill) again.”

A similar bill from former Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, was considered in 2021 and passed the Senate but failed to garner support in the House.

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