In this column I have devoted most of this space to drawing attention to ways in which state government has failed to live up to its potential to make the lives of its citizens better.
These include gross dishonesty, like the time Gov. Janet Mills invented an elaborate set of lies about a phone call with former Republican President Donald Trump, then held a press conference specifically to tell those lies, only to be exposed when the White House released the audio of the call.
They also include a cruel determination to not adequately fund Maine’s nursing homes until many of them closed and others shifted to a lesser level of care. In the depths of the COVID-19 epidemic, when more than half of all deaths had occurred among patients in underfunded, understaffed nursing homes, the state received $2 billion in federal COVID aid, and allocated less than 1 percent to those facilities.
When the state’s reimbursement rate for employees in group homes for people with severe mental disabilities dropped below the minimum wage, many had no choice but to close. When the Legislature allocated more funds toward the problem, “the payments approved by the Legislature in 2021 never arrived.” Thanks to this lack of funding, more than 30 group homes have closed. This happened when the state had billions more dollars in funding than it had ever had.
In recent years, there has been callous disregard for Maine’s poorer citizens, as with the plan to force them to buy high-priced electric vehicles to solve a climate problem they cannot solve because they are not responsible for it.
Then there is the taking millions of dollars in federal heating assistance and not distributing 80 percent of it because government leaders in two agencies could not be bothered to focus the necessary resources on making their computers talk to each other.
Throughout the history of the Mills administration, it seems the more vulnerable and in need you are, the less government will do for you and the worse things will get. Record numbers of Mainers have died of drug overdoses every year since her inauguration. A record number of incarcerated people died in state custody. Hospitals have reported a record number of suicide “ideations” among ER patients, especially among younger Mainers.
Now comes what could be the worst of all.
During a debate in 2018, candidate Mills repeatedly promised she would reform the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), making it more efficient and more responsive, especially when it comes to children. The election, she said, was about “what kind of world our children grow up in.”
Instead of reform, the work that DHHS has done in relation to children has become a heart-breaking disaster. While setting records for the number of child deaths, Maine has become the worst state in the nation for the rate of child abuse, particularly due to the high instance of repeat cases, even after DHHS becomes involved.
Despite failure after failure—and this is a hallmark of the Mills administration—no one in state government has been held accountable. Not a single member of Mills’ original cabinet has ever been terminated or decided to “spend more time with their family.” The idea of taking responsibility and promising to do better is lost on our governor and those around her.
Child deaths in Maine doubled between 2020 and 2021 to the highest single-year total since the state’s child welfare system began collecting that data. But, when both parties in the Legislature stepped in and tried to investigate Mills’ handling of children’s care by DHHS, she opposed their legislation and killed the bill. Then, she refused to even let Legislators or their investigators see the records on these cases.
The Maine Children’s Alliance, always a reliable partner at press events supporting one Mills proposal or another, released its own data that showed Maine’s rate of child maltreatment was the highest in the country in 2020 at 19 cases per 1,000 children. According to the report, more than 4,200 children in the state experienced substantial mistreatment by their parents in 2021, the most recent year available.
Not even the deaths of four Maine children under the age of five over the span of just 24 days seemed to spark any initiative from Mills to focus on the problem with a vengeance.
When government fails to properly address an issue, people to whom that issue is important look elsewhere for answers, often giving up their time and money to try to spur change.
Last week, while driving in my car, I heard the voice of former State Senator Bill Diamond over the radio. A good man and a devoted public servant, Bill often listened to his conscience and not his party leaders. A loyal Democrat, a long-time member of the State Legislature, and former secretary of State, Bill was speaking on behalf of Maine’s endangered children, those whom the system has let down, even abandoned.
Senator Diamond has established a charitable non-profit known as the Walk A Mile in Their Shoes Foundation to “advocate to prevent the abuse and death of children under Maine’s care.”
“Children associated with state care have been dying at record levels, in fact, as recently as 2021 a record number of children died, many were victims of child homicides,” Diamond said. “The chilling question is: How many more children must die before we make meaningful changes?”
As for the Mills administration’s approach to the problem, Diamond says it is “consistent with how they’ve addressed other problems by always looking for a bureaucratic explanation.”
In a video on the foundation’s website, one childcare provider explains the fundamental problem with DHHS by saying, “The Department polices itself and preserves itself which is a breeding ground for corruption. The Department is not listening to case workers and is not listening to mandated reporters.”
On November 8, the Legislature held a hearing that allowed workers in the Office of Child and Family Services to voice their views on the work they do and how DHHS has failed. The department, they said, responded to the dwindling number of caseworkers by using limited resources to swell the ranks of middle managers who did not even work with children.
During a period when Maine had more than $4 billion in extra state and federal funding to spend, Mills pushed for and got a paltry $8 million for reforms in the state’s child welfare system. Then bragged about it.
That’s less than 0.2 percent (1/500) of the additional funds available since 2019. It is also clearly not prioritizing this heartbreaking problem.
Five years after Mills promised reform at DHHS, the headlines show the result.
Given the governor’s stubborn persistence in refusing to hold people in her administration accountable, or even acknowledge that there are very significant problems in our state under her administration, it would be foolish to suddenly expect her to cooperate with the Legislature, or to make this issue a major priority in budgeting and management.
Since this is the reality, one can only hope that Senator Diamond and those cooperating with, and contributing to, his foundation will succeed in creating real change on behalf of Maine’s children.