If there is anything that we have learned over the past few months, it's that Maine's child protectionsystem is badly broken. Instead of focusing our energy on anger and blame, we must focus on how to fix the system immediately. We are running out of time; the health, well-being and lives of Maine children are at stake.
Last week, the Legislature passed a series of bills in an attempt to fill the gaping holes in Maine's child welfare system. Many of these bills offer a direct response to what lawmakers are hearing from caseworkers and information brought to light during the investigation into Maine's child protection system.
My bill will ensure that the Department does not prioritize family reunification over the best interests of a child. This bill clarifies that caseworkers must make reasonable efforts to reunify a child with a family but it's not the priority. While I recognize that family reunification or kinship care - when a child lives with a relative - is often best for the child, these options should obviously not be pursued to the detriment of a child's safety and well-being.
In listening to caseworkers and participating in the investigation, my main concern is that overworked caseworkers, who are often caring for these children in their offices and in some cases hotel rooms, feel the pressure to prematurely reunify families. This could have severe consequences for a child. With my bill, we had a chance to apply some commonsense and shift our priorities to what's best for the child. I think giving caseworkers a little flexibility will allow them to better do their job.
Lawmakers also agreed to ensure DHHS has the resources, funds and staff to keep kids safe by passing a $21 million funding bill. The amended version of this bill directs the Department to upgrade the computer system, up the foster care rates and increase staffing, which includes adding 16 caseworkers. Working in child protection is a tough job. The bill also provides mental health services to those working on the frontline to help with the trauma they experience just trying to save the lives of kids. To reduce the turnover rate and fill more positions, we need to make sure there is adequate pay and support.
Lastly, we also passed two proposals that deal with how the Department accesses information and maintains records. It only makes sense to make sure the Department has access to all the necessary information to identify possible cases of child abuse and determine whether or not a child should remain in that home. This bill will make it easier for caseworkers to do their job.
The passing of this legislation marks the start of our work to repair and rebuild Maine's child welfare system. Maine lawmakers, the Chief Executive and the Department of Health and Human Services still have a lot of work left to guarantee the safety and protection of Maine children. I'm hopeful that the governor will sign these bills into law so the next Legislature has the proper foundation to build a stronger, more robust child welfare system.
On September 27, I will be hosting my monthly cable TV show on channel 7 in Windham. We will be talking with a caseworker about the unseen difficulties of the job. Please tune in and we will be on Facebook live-streaming as well.
As always, please feel free to contact me ator (207) 287-1515 if you have any questions, comments or concerns. I will do my best to keep you updated on what is happening in Augusta and what we are doing to repair Maine's child welfare system so these types of tragedies never happen again.