State lawmakers want Maine courts to prioritize child murder cases

Mar. 30—In an unusual example of bipartisan unity, one chamber of Maine's legislative branch unanimously agreed Tuesday to ask the judicial branch for scheduling help so it has enough time to repair a broken administrative branch tasked with keeping at-risk children alive.

The Senate voted 33-0 to approve a bill that asks state courts to give scheduling priority to child homicide trials. The bill is not so much about society's need for swift justice as it is about lawmakers' need for child welfare information that only comes to light in a courtroom.

"We learn at those trials what has happened, where the system has failed," said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Cumberland, the bill's sponsor. "At those trials, we hear the things we don't usually hear because of confidentiality. Those trials are a chance for us to then make some reforms."

But it usually takes 18 months to two years for a child homicide case to go to trial, said Diamond, who has been calling for more transparency in Maine's child welfare system. Waiting that long to find out what needs fixing puts other children at unnecessary risk, he said.

"When we have the trial, the media finds out what happened, the public finds out what happened, and most importantly, you find out what happened," Diamond told fellow lawmakers. "Because you have the power and the ability to make changes. You have the legislative control."

The bill is one of a suite of child welfare reforms moving through the Legislature this session, including bills to strengthen the child ombudsman's office and institute a child welfare office monitoring system. Gov. Janet Mills wants to fund more child and family caseworkers in her supplemental budget.

Diamond ticked off a series of departmental failures that did not come out until trial:

— 5-year-old Logan Marr told her biological mother that her foster mother, Sally Ann Schofield, was hurting her, but the state didn't follow up; Marr died of suffocation in 2001, and Schofield was later convicted of manslaughter.

— Day care workers told Office of Child and Family Services that 10-week-old Ethan Henderson was being abused in 2012, but a caseworker who went to his home to check on him left without seeing him because he was sleeping. He died three days later and the father eventually was convicted of manslaughter.

— Neighbors, police and school officials all reported suspected abuse of 4-year-old Kendall Chick in 2017, but the state only visited Chick twice in eight months; her grandfather's girlfriend was sentenced to 50 years for Chick's depraved indifference murder.

The bill, L.D. 1857, initially directed the Attorney General's Office to prioritize the investigation of child homicide cases, but that was eventually dropped after Attorney General Aaron Frey cautioned the Judiciary Committee against codifying such a mandate in statute.

"While a homicide case may take some time to work through the judicial system, it is hard to identify specific points where time is unreasonably spent on how these cases are processed," Frey told the committee during a January public hearing on the bill.

The amended bill still directs the Attorney General's Office to send a formal letter to the courts asking for child homicide cases to get priority over other murder cases. Frey said such a request was easily met, but he warned the committee that he couldn't make the court comply.

But such a request, fueled by overwhelming legislative sentiment, could prove persuasive, Frey said.

The amended version of the bill that passed on the Senate floor with unanimous support actually failed in a tie on the committee level. The Judiciary Committee deadlocked. But committee co-chair, Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, introduced a minority report from the floor.

"It's a good bill," Carney said. "We need it."

The unanimous vote came just a few days after the legislative watchdog, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, issued a report concluding excessive workloads, poor training and tight timelines are hindering state investigations into alleged child abuse and neglect.

The 73-page OPEGA report on the state's child welfare program issued Friday reaffirmed longstanding concerns about staffing. Its first report, released in January, looked at existing oversight and found no major gaps. A third report is due in the fall.

The report to the Legislature's Government Oversight and Health and Human Services committees did not draw a direct link between those deficiencies and any of the four child deaths that occurred within a month last summer, sparking the ongoing investigation.

Lawmakers already are pushing a series of reforms to improve child safety and expand oversight of the program, and Gov. Janet Mills has proposed additional funding to increase staffing. The report's findings could be used to draft additional legislation, although the session is rapidly coming to a close.

The reform efforts come after the Department of Health and Human Services reported that 25 children died last year — the most since the department began tracking deaths in 2007. That doesn't include at least four deaths classified as homicides but can't be included until the criminal cases wrap up.