Maine Media, Mills MIA on Devastating Child Welfare Report

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Maine’s political reporters rung in the New Year — and the official start of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ second term — with a continuation of their 4-year-plus habit of avoiding any criticism of the governor whatsoever.

Not even the devastating report from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) ombudsman has stirred them from their partisan torpor.

In case you missed it, the report, published last week, said the DHHS Office of Child and Family Services under Mills and Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew has failed. Specifically, the child welfare agency under Mills and Lambrew has failed to recognize danger to children, failed to intervene effectively to protect children, and failed to successfully reunite families in a way that protected children.

Considering those are the three things the agency is supposed to do, the report shows a government bureaucracy that has become an utterly dysfunctional mess, one that is getting kids killed and doing untold damage to the ones who survive botched state interventions. It is failing to perform even the basic functions of any child welfare agency. And that’s not my opinion, nor is it hyperbole. That’s the conclusion of an independent watchdog Mills praised last year.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the report is that more children have not died as a result of state incompetence.

The prose of Christine Alberi’s investigative review is sterilized government-speak, but it is nonetheless a searing indictment of the agency. Yet for some curious reason, most in the Maine media are ignoring it, its conclusions, and its implications.

Why?

It could be reading 20 or so pages of a report detailing so much human suffering is too much to ask of Maine’s precious journalist class. What little coverage there has been shows no evidence that the reporters have gotten past the executive summary. But I’m old enough to remember when many of these same reporters combed the ill-begotten “Alexander Report” for months on end, camped out in front of then-Gov. Paul LePage’s office with cameras and recorders, and shoved allegations of plagiarism by some government contractor in his face at every turn.

So we know they can read. And we know they can ask a governor hard questions. The only conclusion, then, is that they are choosing not to. Which means the lead explanation for the muzzled silence of Maine’s 4th estate is partisanship — partisanship on the part of a media class that never fails to assure us they are fair and disinterested.

The media’s coverage of the report has been so paltry we don’t even know if Gov. Mills has read it. If she has, she hasn’t been moved to issue a statement, or say what she intends to do about it.

So what does the report say?

A few problems the report found with child welfare investigations: State workers did not call parents who weren’t home during visits, never obtained police records and court orders related to cases, relied on previous incomplete investigations, never got kid’s medical records, and didn’t use drug testing effectively. (That last one is kind of a biggie when you consider the cast preponderance of these cases involve substance abuse issues…) In some instances, the report says state workers decided a complaint against a potentially abusive parent wasn’t true solely because a previous investigation into that individual turned out to be unsubstantiated, as if one unproven allegation meant every allegation thereafter was false.

In other words, the investigators didn’t investigate.

Again, not my opinion; that’s what the DHHS watchdog said.

Similar problems plagued the agency’s efforts to reunite children with their families after a state intervention. In the dry prose of a bureaucrat, the ombudsman writes, “there were multiple instances where the Department did not recognize risk to children, both during investigations and reunification cases.” To translate: state workers paid to protect children failed to determine when children needed protection and sometimes put children in harms way.

So what now?

In the private sector, investigators who did not investigate would be fired, as would workers who were supposed to protect kids but did not, or could not. But this is state government, and we’ve got a union to please, so it’s too much to ask for that kind of accountability. The most we could hope for is a little anger from the people in charge. Perhaps a promise for reform.

But we’re not even getting that. Mills hasn’t said anything about the report so far, and neither have Democrats in the Legislature, but when they finally do, we can predict what the story will be: “The agency is underfunded,” they’ll say.

First, that’s not true at all. Just a few months ago, Mills was touting a new law to enhance the ombudsman’s office, a law, she claimed, that only continued her heroic track record for funding, fixing, and improving the agency.

Second, even if it were true, precisely who’s fault would that be?

Mills has had near unilateral control over Maine’s purse strings for four years now. Meantime, Uncle Sam has been dumping Monopoly Money on Maine for two years. We’ve got so much money we’re handing out checks before Election Day to buy votes for Mills and we’re handing out checks afterward just for good measure. Money, money, money, but not a dime to spare for competent child welfare investigators, it seems.

Maybe if those poor children could vote, Mills would send them some money, too, so they could buy a bus ticket to a state with a decent child welfare agency.

One reform to Maine’s child welfare system the Mills administration does seem interested in pursuing is Rule 117, a Department of Education proposed rule change that will make it easier for the state to take a child away from his or her parents if those parents don’t enthusiastically embrace the child’s gender transition. The change is an obscure one, but the outcome will be plain soon enough. Education Commissioner Pender Makin and her fellow travelers have re-written child welfare rules in order to define an unsafe or abusive environment as a household where parents are skeptical of faddish gender-bending trends.

In other words, if your daughter has some Tom Boy tendencies or might be same-sex attracted, you’d better call the surgeons at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital and schedule the double mastectomy ASAP. If you don’t, agents from DHHS will be knocking on your door with a court order in no time. The child welfare office has a hard time intervening when dad is high on meth and bashing mom’s skull in for the eighth time in a year, but they’d be quite efficient if they suspected dad had violated one of liberalism’s LGBTQ Commandments, “Thou Shall Affirm.”

Yet all of this is happening outside of public view thanks in large part to a media class in this state that is either too lazy or too partisan to report on what’s happening.

The Portland newspaper’s report showed scant evidence the reporter had read past Alberi’s introduction.

“The issues cited in the ombudsman’s report are not new,” she writes. The reporter didn’t mean it this way, but what a damning indictment of everyone involved! If only someone had paid attention to these “not new” issues in recent years…

The one service the Portland newspaper story did perform was getting Sen. Joe Baldacci (D-Penobscot) on the record as clueless. “The ombudsman’s report is not surprising,” Baldacci said, raising the question: what level of systemic government failure and drug-fueled child abuse he would find surprising… “What we really need is an independent office that will bring accountability to the system,” he said, in reference to a report from an independent office designed to bring accountability to the system.

As President Trump once said of a different matter, they’re not sending their best, folks.

In the Bangor paper, the story looked at the heartbreaking report like it was a political football. After mentioning LePage a few times and quoting the executive summary, the story hashed out the political angles of a report detailing child abuse and systemically failing state interventions. That’s one way to do it, I guess.

By Friday, Maine Public’s homepage was devoid of any mention of the report. Instead, visitors were greeted with a hero shot of a smiling Gov. Mills and a story from Steve Mistler and Kevin Miller that could have been written by any number of the payroll patriots on Mills’ communications staff. Mistler and Miller, for indeed it took two reporters to pull together this insightful coverage, gush about Mills donning “Bean Boots” and “suffragette-style” white as she declared “hope” was still alive in Maine.

Presumably she was talking about the “hope” that your government check would soon arrive and not the “hope” an abused child might have of getting rescued from a violent home by child welfare investigators.

Near the end of the Maine Public report, in a throwaway list of “issues” facing lawmakers — not Mills, but lawmakers — Maine’s top gumshoes add: “strengthening Maine’s child welfare programs in response to recent abuse-related deaths.”

That link goes back to some half-decent reporting… from May. It doesn’t include the more recent ombudsman’s report. Nothing in that story, and nothing on the Maine Public homepage Friday, even mentions the absolutely scandalous report on Maine’s failing child welfare agency.

Apparently whoever passes for a managing editor at Maine Public decided a retrospective on the Ice Storm of 1998 was more important.

Perhaps Maine Public, and the rest of Maine’s media, should consider retrospectives back to when they knew how to do adversarial journalism.

For starters, maybe it’s time for Mills and Lambrew to hold a press conference and answer some unscripted questions about how this happened, and what they plan to do about it, if anything.

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