The investigative arm of the Legislature will review a child protection system that failed to prevent the deaths of two young girls despite previous reports of abuse.
The Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Friday to authorize a two-phased probe into the state's response in both cases. The investigation will focus on the Department of Health and Human Services, which Maine's Child Welfare Services Ombudsman has said failed to follow proper procedure in multiple child welfare cases.
The oversight committee spent little time discussing whether to authorize the investigation. In fact, committee members like Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond, of Windham, needed little convincing that the probe is necessary. Diamond said he has heard too many stories about domestic and child abuse as a member of the criminal justice committee.
"What scares the hell out of me, is kids being tortured right this minute as we sit here and the only reason we don't know it is because they're not dead yet," he said.
But lawmakers do know about 10-year old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year old Kendall Chick. Kennedy's body was found by police late last month after allegedly being beaten by her parents for months. Chick was found dead in December after being placed by the state in the care of Shawna Gatta, a foster parent now accused of killing her.
Maine's Department of Health and Human Services is believed to have had some knowledge of abuse leading up to both deaths, but the agency's handling of each case is unknown because of its cited confidentiality laws – a move toward opacity sharply questioned by a former head of the agency in a recent newspaper column.
"People are outraged," said Republican Sen. Roger Katz, who co-chairs the Government Oversight Committee. He says it is clear that the system failed Marissa Kennedy, and that it is up to lawmakers to get the answers to some important questions.
“What happened? Who reported what? What kind of communication was there between law enforcement, the schools, Child Protective Services? And how did the ball get dropped?" Katz said.
It will be up to the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, to try and answer those questions. OPEGA is the watchdog agency of the Legislature, and it has undertaken several high profile investigations, including a corruption case that led to the conviction of the former head of the Maine Turnpike Authority and the shredding of documents explaining how public health grants were awarded by the Maine CDC. In this case, OPEGA will review how the child protective services agency within DHHS responded to the reports of abuse leading up to the death of the two young girls.
Rep. Patricia Hymanson, a Democrat from York, requested the inquiry, which also has the backing of legislative leaders.
"If this happened to these two children then what's happening out there now? And I think people are heartsick about that," Hymanson said.
Hymanson co-chairs the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, which has oversight over DHHS. She has said that she’s worried about flaws in the system and a lack of resources at Child Protective Services.
"The child protective workers are our first responders. They go into terrible situations and they get burned out easily. We have an 80 percent attrition rate in our child protective service workers," Hymanson said.
Hymanson hopes the OPEGA investigation will shed light on a system in a way that her committee cannot.
Hymanson also says information from DHHS is typically hard to extract because Gov. Paul LePage has restricted access to agency leaders and staff. In a recent interview with the Portland TV station WSCH, the governor spread the blame across state government, including DHHS – an agency his administration has controlled for over seven years.
"It's a comedy of errors both at DHHS, CDS ... the mandatory reporters from the schools. I mean this – law enforcement – everybody here messed it up," he said.
The OPEGA investigation will proceed in two phases. The first should be completed in early May.
This post was updated at 2:51 p.m.