The Government Oversight Committee takes the unusual step in demanding records of four children who died in 2021
By Senate Republican Office
STATE HOUSE – On Wednesday, the Maine Legislature’s bipartisan Government Oversight Committee (GOC) voted to issue a subpoena to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for the records of four children who died within weeks of each other in 2021. The decision to make the exceptional move comes on the heels of DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew’s refusal to turn over the records that were originally requested through a letter to DHHS in August.
The GOC’s initial request to review the records was in response to the record 29 deaths of children that occurred last year, which marked the deadliest year on record since tracking by DHHS’s Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) began in 2007.
The summer of 2021 saw the deaths of Jayden Harding, Hailey Goding, Maddox Williams and Sylus Melvin, which prompted the GOC’s investigation through its nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA). Three of the children died in June while the fourth, Sylus Melvin, was allegedly killed by his father in August. The parents of all four children have been charged with either murder or manslaughter; and in November, a fifth child died in Oakland that led to his mother being charged with manslaughter.
“It’s time for us to push harder against the system and create greater accountability for DHHS. Business as usual cannot continue,” said Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Oxford, who is the Senate Republican lead for the committee. “The vote to subpoena records is an extraordinary step, but it’s only a small measure in addressing the enormity of the problems surrounding DHHS.”
In all, 34 children died last year when adding the five alleged homicides to those tracked by OCFS. Of those, at least 27 had some sort of child protective history before or during the child’s life, according to OCFS’s Child Fatality Report. There have been seven deaths recorded thus far in 2022.
“It seems clear to me that information available to legislative staff should be available to legislators themselves. I believe this is not only sensible but also consistent with current law, and the nearly unanimous vote of the committee affirms this belief,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, who also serves on GOC. “This may be one of the few times the Legislature has subpoenaed administrative records from the Executive Branch; and while this should be rare, the safety of our children demands it.”
The 10-1 vote to issue the subpoena was subsequent to a vote taken just moments earlier that authorized OPEGA to begin its investigation under the parameters set forth by Lambrew in her response to GOC. She agreed that state law allowed for the records to be turned over to OPEGA, but not GOC itself according to an opinion by Maine Assistant Attorney General Ariel Gannon. The parallel investigation will begin immediately while the Committee’s members seek the full records for themselves through the subpoena.
“We began this investigation in August 2021, and while we’ve had two reports outlining many issues regarding DHHS, here we are a year later and we still have no answers about these particular cases,” said Senate Republican Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Androscoggin, also a member of GOC. “The vote for this important, albeit unusual step will allow the Legislature to continue its important work. The people of Maine expect us to do this.”