Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Maine legislative committee opposes the worst of the LePage bills

Fool me once, the adage goes, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.  Maine journalists and lawmakers had been fooled into accepting massive removal of children to foster care during the 1980s and 1990s.  So far, they have not been fooled again.

UPDATE, August 30: But a majority of the full legislature was fooled.  The worst of the bills has passed.

A victory for Maine's vulnerable children:
Gov. Paul LePage's take-the-child-and-run agenda
suffers some setbacks in a legislative committee
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)
Updates added on August 30 are in bold.

On Monday this blog reported on the efforts of Maine’s Trump-before-Trump governor, Paul LePage, to destroy child welfare reforms that had made Maine a leader in reducing needless foster care and keeping children safe.

“By definition,” we wrote. “Children are defenseless.  Right now the Maine Legislature is their last line of defense against proposed laws that will make all of them less safe.”

Yesterday, some lawmakers showed signs that the Legislature will come through.  But ultimately, the legislature failed. 

The Health and Human Services Committee voted  against bills that would have de-emphasized family preservation and imposed criminal penalties on mandated reporters who failed to call in reports alleging abuse or neglect.  A third bad bill passed, but in modified form.  Under this bill, reports so spurious that they didn’t even meet the ridiculously low standards for “substantiation” by caseworkers would have been kept forever, to be used against families.  Now, if the bill passes, they’ll be kept for either three or five years (news accounts differ).

Even the bills that were opposed by a majority in committee still are scheduled for votes by the full Maine House and Senate tomorrow – so plenty could still go wrong.  And it did.  On August 30, the full legislature passed the bill undermining family preservation.

But what happened yesterday in committee reflects rare courage in a state legislature and rare insight from a state’s media. (On the part of lawmakers, it turns out, a bit too rare.)

The usual pattern is this: A child “known to the system” dies.  Politicians take advantage of the case to trash all efforts to keep families together and/or a major newspaper does big stories falsely scapegoating such efforts.  Lawmakers rush to outdo each other in looking tough on child abuse.  So they pass awful bills that start – or accelerate – foster-care panics – sharp, sudden spikes in needless removals of children from their homes. 

That does terrible harm to the children needlessly removed, and it further overloads the entire system so workers have less time to find children in real danger. In short, foster-care panics make all children less safe.

As in other states, Maine’s foster-care panic was kicked into high gear by two high-profile tragedies, the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy.  Gov. LePage immediately sought to exploit those tragedies to push his take-the-child-and-run agenda.

But Maine broke the mold two ways: First, the state’s journalists were not suckered.  Two of the state’s largest newspapers, the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News wrote editorials opposing the worst of the bills and reporters for both newspapers carefully examined all sides of the issue.  That probably helped lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee show the courage to put the interests of children first and oppose the worst of the bills.

And that record continues: Just this morning, the Bangor Daily News published a very good story about successful family reunification (though in one of the cases discussed in the story, involving a mother who was a domestic violence victim, it is likely the children never should have been taken in the first place).

Unfortunately, it wasn't enough.  Though the Portland Press Herald reports there was "vigorous debate" over the measure, a majority were suckered and voted for it.

Logan’s legacy

LePage is not the first Maine governor to embrace a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare.  It was the norm in Maine throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s; in fact, it probably was even worse then than it is now.  And it contributed to tragedy – a tragedy that some in public life in the state, and some journalists, still remember.

They remember Logan Marr – the little girl killed by her foster mother in 2001, a former child protective services caseworker for what was then the Department of Human Services.

They remember how Maine’s record for needlessly tearing apart families contributed to the tragedy and they remember how that led to the reforms that dramatically curbed needless removal of children and made all of Maine’s children safer – reforms that received strong support from editorial boards across the state.

Fool me once, the adage goes, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.  Maine journalists and lawmakers had been fooled into accepting massive removal of children to foster care during the 1980s and 1990s.  So far, they have not been fooled again. So now, the majority of Maine legislators have behaved shamefully.

The big bill is a mixed bag

Not all the news  was good even before the vote on August 30.  A governor and a state agency can hurt children in all sorts of ways without getting the legislature’s approval. Governor LePage and what is now the Department of Health and Human Services have done just that. Needless removals have been escalating for years, as they work to undo improvements that once made Maine a national model for child welfare reform.

And a big bill that got support in committee is a mixed bag.  The good news: It raises pay for frontline caseworkers. That’s good for the simple reason that they deserve it; being a child protective services caseworker is among the toughest jobs imaginable.  It’s also good because it will encourage workers to stick around, reducing the turnover that plagues CPS agencies.

But it also includes a provision hiring more workers and supervisors.  That won’t make things worse, but it won’t make them any better – not as long as LePage and DHHS are pursuing a take-the-child-and-run agenda.  All the new workers will be pursuing all the new cases – so at best the overwhelming workload will remain just as overwhelming, leaving Maine with the same deteriorating system, only bigger.

Maine’s best chance to actually improve the system comes next year. Due to term limits, there will be a new governor. The new governor should take a close look at how Maine went from a national disgrace in the 1990s to a national model ten years later, and follow that example.  Fortunately, thanks to some smart journalism and courageous lawmakers, even with the legislature's big mistake this week, it may not be as hard this time.