- State Rep. Debra D. Plowman gets many complaints from constituents -
hers and other legislators' - about heavy-handedness by the Department
of Human Services child-protective system.
They come by telephone. Fax. Now e-mail.
"I am finding that my phone could ring off the hook 24 hours a
day," she said. "I hear horror stories day in and day out."
That is not to say she believes everything she is told. And Plowman
is not saying the state should do away with its child-protection service.
But she feels that the agency "needs to be reined in."
It is likely that Plowman, a three-term Republican from Hampden
and mother of three, gets so many calls because she is known as a critic
of the agency.
But other legislators report similar complaints, though in varying
Rep. Joseph M. Jabar, D-Waterville, says he does not get many
complaints. But in his own experience as a lawyer, he has found the DHS
"very difficult to deal with."
In one recent case, "they put all their resources against this
family and I didn't think it was warranted."
Rep. Shirley K. Richard, D-Madison, said one case in her district
was "fairly poorly handled."
"It was finally resolved, but not without a lot of consternation
and difficulty," she said. "And it could have been done better."
Despite complaints, the pace of DHS reform has been slow.
Some critics say that might be because the people most likely
to be abused by the child welfare system are poor and, therefore, do not
have a lot of political clout.
Others say politicians are wary about backing reforms for fear
they will be perceived as anti-child.
"Politicians who insult the bureaucracy have to be careful how
they do it," said Lesley Wimberley, a legal consultant who works with law
firms and state VOCALs (Victims of Child Abuse Laws) organizations. "They
don't want to be accused of protecting child abusers or molesters. It's
a politically slippery slope. It's difficult to get reform in the system."
A BETTER WAY
Plowman has moved ahead, searching for ways to make the state's human
services agency more humane. Among her successes:
This year she introduced six bills on issues related to to the agency.
Among them are proposals to:
Create ombudsmen who would investigate complaints about alleged agency
Allow monitoring of social workers' phone calls with clients.
Partially strip away DHS workers' immunity from lawsuits.
Plowman also is proposing legislation that would give grandparents
standing in court, even after their own child's parental rights have been
terminated, if a judge feels they have something to offer the youngsters.
Plowman said her "quality listening" bill would allow supervisors
to monitor caseworker telephone calls to determine whether they are being
abusive, a common citizen complaint. It also would prohibit social workers
from using cellular phones or their own personal telephones to conduct
Another of her bills takes aim at what many consider a prime flaw
in the child-abuse investigation process: the initial interview with a
Under current law, agency social workers interview children as
part of the investigation. The parents are not allowed to be present. The
interview is later used as the basis for the department's case for removing
children from the home.
Plowman and others say those interviews - the ways questions are
phrased, how they are asked, what the child is told - can drastically influence
what a youngster says. The children often are interviewed later by counselors
"You will find there are children, asked the same question at
different times by different people, who think, 'I'm not answering this
Under her bill, children would be questioned by a professional
interviewer and watched by parents, caseworkers and lawyers through a two-way
mirror. Questions would be prepared and agreed upon ahead of time, and
additional questions could be suggested to the interviewer through an earpiece.
Interviews would have to be videotaped and copies made available to parents
Another Plowman proposal would require DHS to disclose to parents
accused of abuse or neglect their court options and any evidence, examinations
or anything provided by psychologists.
Social workers are now immune from lawsuits. One of Plowman's
bills would change that.
It would allow people to sue DHS employees "when it has been found
that an employee tried to deprive them of their rights under federal or
state law or for personal motivation, including monetary gain for themselves
or others, or for vengeful reasons," Plowman said.
Plowman cited one case of a grandmother who sought custody of
her two granddaughters. The DHS gave the woman custody of one child, Plowman
said. When she pursued the issue in an effort to get the other child, caseworkers
demanded to search the closets and cupboards in her home. She refused.
"And she didn't get custody of the second little girl. It took
me a year and a half to get her visitation rights," the legislator said.
Plowman said she also has a bill pending that would require the state
to abide by the so-called kinship care provisions of federal law.
Those provisions, under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act,
require the department to consider giving preference to relatives when
placing children in foster care.
Citing the DHS' own statistics, available on a federal Department
of Health and Human Services database, Plowman said the state places only
5 percent of children removed from homes with relatives, yet has one of
the highest percentages of children who stay in foster care until they
become adults - 28 percent.
Plowman predicts the state Bureau of Child and Family Services
will not greet most of the ideas with open arms.
"They will say they're already complying with several. They'll
oppose quality listening. They'll most likely oppose turning over all the
evidence to the attorney. I don't know where they'll be on the interview
process, though it's nothing new; it's done in other states," Plowman said.
Some of Plowman's bills might get a boost from a legislative task
force, which last December issued a report recommending some of the same
An ombudsman program staffed by independent nonprofit organizations.
Due process protection for parents involved with the child protective system.
An informational pamphlet for parents involved in the system explaining
how the process works, their rights, and services available.
Adoption of rules for operation of the child protective system by Dec.
The 13-member task force said the lack of an ombudsman to
field complaints about the child welfare system is a significant gap in
Most families that get involved with the system do not end up
in court or lose their children, the panel noted. But many are forced to
comply with DHS orders: one parent may be forced to leave the house or
to get counseling.
As it now stands, there is no "formal due process mechanism, such
as a fair hearing, by which the parent can challenge these conditions if
he or she believes that they are inappropriate or not in the best interests
of the child," the task force found.
The task force also noted in its report that the Bureau of Child
and Family Services has never adopted rules governing the operation of
its child protective system, and spelling out what services are available
and how people can apply for them. "The lack of written rules makes it
difficult for parents to adequately understand their rights and responsibilities
in that system," the panel said.
The Legislature will consider Plowman's bills and the task force's
recommendations later this year.
Meanwhile, the state's judicial system is giving a higher priority to
child-protective cases and designing changes that will make the system
"more responsive and less adversarial," said Chief District Court Judge
During the past year, the state court system has doubled the amount
of time judges are spending on child-protection cases, to the equivalent
of eight full-time judges.
"That's a pretty big commitment," Westcott said.
Legislative mandates have led to some changes now being implemented.
Also, the District Court system wants to apply aspects of the new Family
Court to child protection cases.
The idea is to implement a case management system that is less
adversarial and reduces delays that prolong the agony and uncertainty for
both children and parents, said Westcott.
Some of those changes already are in effect in certain courts.
The court system is drawing up rules that will implement them statewide,
The new rules will require a case management conference within
30 days of the filing of a petition. The parties, including the parents,
will talk about services needed by the family and the risk of harm to the
children. Parents will be able to give their side of the story, said Westcott.
"They've never been heard before this fast," the judge said.
Conferences will be required before any type of hearing to pinpoint
areas of agreement and disagreement. And the rules will require firm dates
to be set for the next step in the process. "Continuances will be damn
hard to get," said Westcott.
In line with a legislative mandate, courts will review each case
every six months. Current rules require an annual review, said Westcott.
The new rules will require the court to tackle the issue of alternate
plans for the child's future earlier in the process. Parents will be told
what they need to do to get children back and given time to do that, said
Westcott. But at the same time, social workers and judges will be evaluating
options - foster homes, adoption, or placement with relatives - that can
be pursued they fail to fulfill their part of the bargain.
"One of the most legitimate complaints people have about the system
is that things drag on," Westcott said.
Westcott said he is aiming for June 1 to put the changes in place.
But critics maintain that the changes are not for the benefit
of children or families, but for the players in the system. Gains in efficiency
will be made at the expense of children, they say.
"The case management system serves the needs of the court. It
does not serve the needs of parents. It adds expense, complexity and unfairness
to the system," said Larry Ouellette, the executive director of Maine Dads,
a parents' rights organization.
"The courts love it," Ouellette said. "But you've lost significant
due process protections and significant opportunity to present and rebut
evidence. Most importantly the case management system has stripped the
process of the time needed to work out an appropriate resolution. They
are simply fast-tracking the process in order to make the judges happy.
They're harming children."
Some critics say only state legislators can make the system better,
and only if they become intimately acquainted with how it operates. That
requires time, dedication and fact-finding outside the committee rooms.
Time that many legislators don't have.
Others say legislative and judicial tinkering with the system
is unlikely to produce something more fair and just. They advocate a radical
approach: "throw it out and develop something humane," said John Mitchell,
a Calais lawyer who represents clients in DHS cases.
That, however, is unlikely to happen.
Issues surrounding the child protective system are a "perennial issue
in the Legislature. This is well-plowed ground, and it is a very, very
difficult issue," said state Sen. Peter Mills, R-Skowhegan. "It is real
hard to make it any better than it is.
"Given the competing concerns -the parents' and child's right
to privacy, the alleged perpetrator's rights, the department's need to
act promptly with emergency powers -you wind up coming up with a system
that looks like this."
Tomorrow: Just how effective is Maine's child welfare system?