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Governor’s Address: We’re reforming our child welfare system to protect our children

The tragic deaths of two little girls under the watch of DHHS is spurring needed reforms to Maine’s child welfare system. This summer, I will call a special session of the Legislature to put the safety of our children first.

First, let me stress, if you suspect child abuse or neglect, please call 1-800-452-1999 — that’s 1-800-452-1999 — immediately to make a report. We cannot act on what we do not know.

The priority of Maine’s child welfare system should be doing what is in the best interests of the child.

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.

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.

I want to assure the people of Maine that not only will a child in a crisis be provided the utmost protection, but also that abusers will be held accountable.

Based on my review and internal DHHS reviews, we’ve already begun to make needed reforms.

We’ve made changes to policies and procedures and will be recommending measures to improve staff training, reduce turnover, and prevent burnout of caseworkers.

Some of the most critical reforms require statutory changes.

The best reform we can make is to change the law to place the priority on what is best for the child, not family reunification.

Prioritizing family reunification forces DHHS and courts to repeatedly attempt to keep vulnerable children in dangerous situations – when the best decision would be to remove the child.

Government shouldn’t force a parent who is unable or refuses to take on the challenge of parenting to be responsible for a child. This leaves the child vulnerable to neglect and abuse.

Changing the law doesn’t mean that DHHS will no longer reunite families. But current law requires repeated attempts to keep kids with their parents to demonstrate to the courts that rehabilitation and reunification are not possible.

Folks, how many times must reunification or rehabilitation fail before the system determines it’s “not possible.”

We’ve seen the tragic results when those attempts fail. This must end.

Let’s change the law so that reunification is secondary to the best interests of the child. Let’s give DHHS and the courts flexibility when deciding the appropriateness and effectiveness of reunification on a case-by-case basis.

Then our system can always put the best interests of the child first.

In addition – for the second time in my administration – we will ask the Legislature to criminalize the failure to comply with the mandatory reporting statute.

Mandatory reporters must not hesitate or second-guess whether they should report. Making the failure to report a class-E crime provides an additional incentive to act promptly and perhaps save a child’s life.

As we continue to examine Maine’s child welfare system, we’ll bring more bills forward.

I won’t allow a bill to protect our children to become a political soccer ball like so many other things this session.

When the Legislature wraps up what should have been completed months ago, we can move on to the critical work of protecting our children.

Thank you.

Paul LePage


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