March 1

Maine panel to probe DHHS inaction on child-abuse reports

Legislators respond to accounts of day care reports being ignored by managers for months.

By Joe Lawlor jlawlor@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Friday to investigate the Department of Health and Human Services’ child care licensing division, in which managers have been accused of letting reports of abuse and neglect languish for months or years without acting.

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Nicole White, a former employee of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services who inspected day care centers, says that there was a culture of intimidation from managers at DHHS.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

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The vote came a day after the Portland Press Herald published a report in which two former DHHS child care inspectors gave detailed accounts of the agency’s lack of response to violations.

With the committee’s vote, the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability will look into the way the state does child care licensing investigations, and whether there’s appropriate follow-up by managers.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in an interview Friday that her department welcomes the investigation and input.

“I have a lot of respect for OPEGA,” Mayhew said. “Their reports have added value” to the DHHS.

The safety of children in Maine’s more than 2,000 day care facilities has come under scrutiny since January, when reports of abuse at a day care center in Lyman became public. Documents obtained by the Press Herald revealed that DHHS managers waited more than a year to take action against the Sunshine Child Care & Preschool after inspectors concluded that the abuse occurred.

Nicole White, a former inspector who came forward along with her former colleague Charley LaFlamme to highlight problems with the state’s licensing program, said the committee’s decision Friday was “awesome.”

“I think there’s finally hope,” White said. “It gives me hope for the kids. Without this, I don’t believe change would have occurred.”

White and LaFlamme allege that managers harassed them for pushing to sanction or close day care facilities.​

White said she is confident that investigators will find proof that managers delayed action on abuse reports. She said everything is meticulously documented, and the facts won’t be denied.

“I know they’re going to validate our concerns,” White said.

The unanimous vote signaled strong bipartisan consensus on the committee, which has six Republicans and six Democrats.

“If this were happening to my child or grandchild, I would go berserk,” said Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston. “It’s really upsetting.”

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability does several investigations each year. Last year, it issued four reports and worked on four others, according to its website, including reviews of the Maine State Housing Authority and the Public Utilities Commission.

In 2011, it investigated the Maine Turnpike Authority and the authority’s former director, who later went to prison for stealing $150,000 to $230,000 from the authority in the form of credit card purchases and gift cards for personal use from 2003 to 2010.

The office has subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify, if necessary. Director Beth Ashcroft said that in the next few weeks, her office will prioritize when to begin work on the child care licensing review and determine how long it will take. Lawmakers urged quick action.

“There’s a great deal of immediacy, considering what has come to light about the safety of children,” said Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville.

Mayhew would not discuss the specific accusations made by LaFlamme and White, but said that work-flow standards are needed, and that the child care licensing division is already working to implement such standards.

“We are making it so that (employees) can track the work and the work flow, making sure that people are meeting timelines and deadlines,” said Mayhew, who agreed that the reports of cases sitting on desks for months would be a concern, if true.

Kenneth Albert, director of the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services, told the Press Herald on Wednesday that he disagreed with White and LaFlamme that there were systemic problems in the division.

(Continued on page 2)

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