BANGOR - James C. LaBrecque is on a mission to reform the state's child welfare system. For him, it's personal. It's also a matter of justice, he says.
A self-assured fireplug of a man with thinning black hair, LaBrecque is a dynamo. He's got the tenacity of a pit bull.
During the past year or so, he's become a major thorn in the side of the state Department of Human Services and its Division of Child and Family Services.
Staff photo by DAVID LEAMING
James C. LaBrecque sits with his son, Lauriano, on the steps of William S. Cohen School in Bangor.
"The people at DHS hate to see me coming," he said. "It's very obvious that I'm extremely controversial. That bothers me not in the slightest. I think I intimidate them severely. Because when I come in, I come prepared."
NIGHTMARE IN NEW JERSEY
LaBrecque, 45, is a self-taught mechanical-electrical engineer, an entrepreneur who has built a successful business installing complex "integrated systems."
In 1995 he was installing a mechanical and process-control system for a supermarket in the Trump Palace in Manhattan when he had his own experience with New Jersey's child protective system.
His wife filed for a divorce and LaBrecque's son Lauriano got sucked into the system. The allegation was that Lauriano, who suffered brain damage from a high fever as a baby and is now developmentally disabled, got stranded at school one day and wasn't getting his seizure medications.
Lauriano, now 13, spent months in state care as the case went through the courts. LaBrecque said he found out late that the boy was traumatized by his stay in foster care. His seizures increased 6,000 percent and his medication intake went up 600 percent, according to LaBrecque.
The second time the boy was admitted to a hospital, a friendly contact inside the New Jersey Department of Human Services told LaBrecque and his sister where the boy was, he said.
"We went to the hospital where he was placed because they couldn't get the seizures under control," LaBrecque said. "We found him cooped up in a little stainless steel cage. We took pictures. It would horrify you to see them."
LaBrecque said he called a New Jersey child welfare supervisor to complain of Lauriano's treatment. The supervisor, he said, warned him not to do anything with the pictures and threatened him.
"He said, 'Jim, remember I warned you how vicious my attorney can be. ... I just know my attorney has nasty ways of doing things and nasty ways of manipulating situations when she's upset,' " said LaBrecque. "I've got it all on tape."
LaBrecque said his struggle with the system lasted two years, cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars and required innumerable court appearances.
"It consumed me for over two years. But I got final custody," he said. His son now lives with him in Bangor.
The experience convinced him that the child protective system is rotten, that attorneys and even judges often don't know the laws, and that families who want to fight can't afford to go up against the "unlimited resources of the state.
"The problem is the system is too big, too complex, and nobody has a clue as to what they're supposed to be doing," he said.
FEDERAL LAW IGNORED?
LaBrecque has spent a lot of time researching child welfare law.
What he found, he says, is that child welfare agencies routinely ignore provisions of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 and of Title IV-E of the federal Social Security Act, one of the major funding vehicles by which federal foster-care funds are funneled to the states.
Among other things, it requires that state child welfare systems:
Make reasonable efforts to avoid removing children from their homes, including providing services to the parents, and to reunify families whose children have been removed.
Consider giving preference to adult relatives when placing children who have been removed from a home because they were deemed to be in jeopardy.
Provide a written case plan for each child that tells how the state plans to meet the child's needs, including reuniting the child with his or her family.
LaBrecque said many lawyers, legislators and state court judges are unfamiliar with the law's provisions, and the provisions they are ignored routinely. "Caseworkers," he said, "violate all the laws because the courts allow them to."
DHS is supposed to make reasonable efforts to avoid removing a child from the home, said LaBrecque. "I haven't seen where they have done it yet. I haven't seen once where they could document those reasonable efforts."
Service plans, he said, are few and far between. Under the law they're supposed to be filed within 60 days of the date the state assumes responsibility for providing services. LaBrecque said he's talked to many families who had yet to see a service plan even months after their children were removed.
LaBrecque points to a statistic he gleaned from a U.S. government database - the Adoption Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System - showing that Maine has one of the worst records when it comes to placing children removed from their homes with relatives - only 5 percent, compared to 43 percent for California, 50 percent for Florida, and 52 percent for Illinois.
"The fact is they don't want to deal with family members because the family members will obviously know what's really going on and relay that to the parents. Foster parents are forbidden to talk. ...
"It's a slap in the face to Maine families when they say that 95 percent of us are not good for children."
DHS: CHARGES UNFOUNDED
The state Bureau of Child and Family Services denies LaBrecque's charges.
To suggest that the state is ignorant of the terms of one of its major funding laws is false, said Margaret Semple, the director of the Bureau. "Nothing could be further from the truth," she said, adding that the state of Maine complies with "all requirements" in that law.
"Reasonable efforts requirements have been part of the department's written policy and casework practice for many, many years," Semple said.
But "reasonable efforts is a two-way street," she said. While the DHS must offer services to avoid the removal of a child from a family or to make it possible to reunite child and parents, it's also up to the parents to avail themselves of those services, whether it be nutrition education or sexual-abuse counseling, she said.
On the issue of placing children with adult relatives, Semple said the operative word in the law is "consider" giving preference to adult relatives over nonrelated foster families.
It's her department's policy not to place a child with relatives based solely on familial relationship, she said, but only when such a move is "best able to meet the child's needs."
DHS guidelines also say that relatives will be considered if they can meet "all relevant state child protection standards." Those include checks of a person's criminal and driving history and a home that meets code and safety laws.
The DHS also wants to make sure that relatives don't "impede or interfere with rehabilitation and reunification efforts," she said.
Some critics of the agency say Maine child protective caseworkers operate on the theory that if the fruit is rotten, so is the vine.
"The department takes the position that the grandparents are guilty too, because they brought up someone who abused a child," said John A. Mitchell, a Calais attorney who has represented families in child abuse proceedings for 30 years.
Nor do the defendants in child-abuse cases have much of a chance to prove their innocence, Mitchell contends. He points to nagging questions of due process that make civil libertarians positively queasy.
In this country, you cannot lose your freedom without a public trial and sentencing. You can lose your children, however.
All court proceedings in child protection cases take place behind closed doors. Even the accused is limited in who can accompany him into the court. The trial record is unavailable to the public. Asked about cases, social workers cite confidentiality requirements.
All of this is said to be for the protection of families and children. But critics say it also goes a long way to protect the Department of Human Services.
DUE PROCESS ISSUES
"There are some very definite due-process issues involved here," said Sally Sutton, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.
"No one's advocating putting children in harm's way. But we're all served better by a system that's open, that people can criticize and have input into improving. I don't think that's what we have now."
Mitchell says the fact that the proceedings are secret is a big part of the problem: "If this were happening in public and the public could go and watch these charades, it wouldn't happen."
But Mitchell said there are other problems with the process:
"The normal restrictions on testimony don't apply. The constitutional guarantee to confront your accuser doesn't apply. The child never comes to court," he said.
Some judges do give children a choice about testifying, though for those sessions the parent accused of abuse isn't allowed to sit in. Most often social workers relay to the judge what the child told them, a major exception to court rules that block hearsay testimony.
"Defending them, you never get to whether the statement was ever made. It's assumed to be true and assumed to have been said," said Mitchell.
For all these reasons, LaBrecque has become an advocate for families battling the DHS, sometimes spending 40 to 50 hours a week at the task.
He fields questions from attorneys, accompanies parents to meetings with DHS personnel, testifies at legislative hearings, quizzes judges during judicial reappointment hearings, lobbies legislators, and talks to civic groups and advocacy organizations.
He's received calls from about 150 families who think they have been victimized by the child welfare system, he said. LaBrecque believes many of the complaints are valid. He says there's ample evidence that the agency blatantly violates laws, policies and citizens' rights to due process.
LaBrecque says the state needs a child welfare system, and DHS and the courts should be allowed to remove children from homes where their safety and health and well-being is in jeopardy. But the system needs to abide by the law, regulations, and the DHS' own policies and procedures, and to treat families and parents with respect, he said.
LaBrecque advises families never to let a state caseworker inside their homes without a court order or probable cause. "There's nothing you can say to a caseworker that will do you any good," he said.
"You could have the pope for your babysitter and Mother Theresa for your nanny, and surveillance cameras on every wall, and they would write a report saying 'going to extraordinary efforts to hide the facts and obviously in great denial of their problems.' "
LaBrecque's crusade is taking a toll on his business. But he believes it's important.
"I don't know of any problem in this state that would even come close to this," he said. "This is real. This is destroying children for life. Yesterday I spent time at a homeless shelter so I could talk to people that end up in homeless shelters because they were a product of the DHS foster-care system."
LaBrecque acknowledges that trying to get a bureaucracy the size of the Department of Human Services to change is like trying to turn an aircraft carrier. Real change will come when Maine legislators and Gov. Angus King decide to deal with the issue, he said.
He doesn't plan to give up, he said. "My heart's into it 100 percent. I will make a difference."