Regarding DHHS: No more names

Senator Jeff Timberlake delivers this week’s Republican Radio Address

By Senator Jeff Timberlake

AUGUSTA – As a society, a few things cause our collective hearts to sink. They tend to involve a major catastrophe or disaster, and we feel for our fellow Americans and even those around the world who are its victims. When it involves children, however, as in the case last week in Texas, these tragedies tear at our hearts much harder.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake – Androscoggin

Hello, this is Senator Jeff Timberlake of Androscoggin County and I’m pleased to join you for this week’s Republican Radio Address.

To the parents of the 19 kids who were killed in Uvalde, Texas, I guarantee I’m not alone in saying our prayers are with you. Nothing like this should ever happen in our society and while officials there continue finding answers, I don’t think any answer of how or why it happened can ever console a parent or family who has lost a child.

That line of thinking is why I joined my colleague, Democratic Senator Bill Diamond of Cumberland, for a rally and press conference two weeks ago in front of the Maine State House under the banner of “No More Names.” The names I’m referring to are our own children here in Maine who have needlessly lost their lives.

The Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) said 29 Maine children died in 2021. That figure was recently updated – before, we thought it was 25. Still, 2021 was the deadliest year on record. That’s not a record we want to keep setting.

What’s more disturbing is that the vast majority, or 27 of the 29 deaths, had a Child Protective Services history before or during the child’s life, even when the cause of death was natural, accidental, by suicide or undetermined. And just like in Uvalde, the question before us here in Maine is “Why?”

Sen. Jeff Timberlake is flanked by Sen. Bill Diamond (far left), Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham (left) and Rep. Jeff Hanley (right) during a rally and press conference in front of the Maine State House on May 18, 2022. The press conference featured speakers outlining a range of topics regarding child deaths across the state as well as issues surrounding the Department of Health and Human Services. (Senate Republican Office/Mike Fern)

The reason both Senator Diamond and I led that rally together is because we are together on this. This is not a partisan issue. It’s not an issue of who is to blame. This is a life and death issue affecting our precious children, and it needs to be addressed immediately by all of us.

And yet “Why?” is a question that has been hard to answer. Senator Diamond and I have been repeatedly asking it for years, and it goes back decades. In fact, 180 children across our state have died since tracking began in 2007.  Yes, there are 180 names on that list.

The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, of which I am a member, is charged with holding our Executive Branch and its agencies accountable to Maine’s people and we’re now asking that very question. It’s a question that won’t be going away – we’ll keep asking it and demand accountability and transparency to help fix the problem.

But you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what it is to begin with. And the problem is not limited to just the children who have died – we also heard from foster parents and child advocates at the rally who described a whole range of issues with OCFS and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Our bipartisan committee will continue meeting throughout the summer as we seek the answers and work together to make DHHS a better agency, one that is transparent and accountable to Maine’s people whom we represent. It may also lead us to an even harder but necessary solution. Is it prudent to break up DHHS and OCFS into two separate agencies with different focuses, similar to how things were structured before DHHS was created in 2004?

Either way, three words will continue to guide us. No more names.

Again, this is Senator Jeff Timberlake of Androscoggin County and I hope you have a great weekend.

Senator Jeff Timberlake is the Senate Republican Leader and is in his second term representing District 22. He is a member of the Government Oversight Committee.

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