Politics & Other Mistakes: Break up the blob

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The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (motto: Not Particularly Healthy and Nobody is Too Sure About the Human Part, Either) is a bureaucratic cesspool. Its only purpose is to make itself as large and convoluted as possible, in hopes sheer size and complexity will keep anyone from noticing it doesn’t actually accomplish anything.

That works well enough when it comes to bamboozling most politicians. DHHS officials learned long ago that they could justify their existence by spending millions on pointless studies no one will ever read, launching programs that address problems that don’t exist, and ignoring those icky issues that might address the suffering of real people.

This works well enough – right up until somebody dies.

When it comes to child abuse and neglect, the department has a long history of waiting until it’s too late, and then wringing its (metaphorical) hands for a while, before going back to waiting until it’s too late.

Dealing with life-threatening situations that involve children requires clear thinking and quick action. Expecting either of those from DHHS is like expecting Santa Claus to deliver a big package of bipartisanship to Congress.

“It’s not my job,” St. Nick explained. “I think the Tooth Fairy is supposed to deal with that stuff.”

Back to the department. State Sen. William Diamond, D-Windham, has introduced a modest measure in the Legislature to correct one of DHHS’s most glaring deficiencies. Diamond would transfer all those services the department doesn’t provide to abused kids and incompetent parents to a new state agency called the Department of Child and Family Services.

Unlike DHHS, this entity would have a narrow focus that would allow it to intervene in a timely manner. Without that, Diamond said in testimony before a legislative committee earlier this month, nothing is going to change.

“I guarantee that when the next child is murdered or dies, God forbid that happening, because of neglect or abuse, we all, of course, will feel terrible and pledge to fix the problem,” he said. “Because that’s what we do.”

In other words, if we don’t do something different, the list of dead children that already includes 5-year-old Logan Marr (2001), 4-year-old Kendall Chick (2017), and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy (2018) will continue to grow, because DHHS hasn’t gotten around to figuring out how to prevent that from happening. And keep in mind this morbid roll call doesn’t include the dozens and dozens of children who didn’t make headlines because they didn’t die. They just suffered lasting physical or emotional abuse that warped their lives, often permanently.

So, what do the officials who run DHHS have to say about Diamond’s idea? Do they acknowledge their shortcomings? Do they propose concrete plans to upgrade their operations? Do they appear to have the slightest clue?

Uh, no.

In written comments to the committee, Dr. Todd Landry, Office of Child and Family Services director, offered these reasons why Diamond’s plan won’t work:

“This bill does not appear to contain any provision to move relevant sections of Title 22 into the proposed Title 22-B. … Furthermore, this bill does not acknowledge or address the significant work that would be required to divide off OCFS’ funding into a separate Department, including new accounting codes, updates to state plans and federal programs that oversee grant funding currently received and administered by DHHS/OCFS, and sorting out funding streams that may be split among multiple offices within the Department.”

Obviously, in crafting his rebuttal, Dr. Landry’s concern about those dead kids is front and center.

DHHS is bad at doing lots of other stuff besides failing to protect at-risk children. It bungles welfare programs and makes obtaining affordable health care only slightly more difficult than catching a helicopter ride on Mars. Drug addiction, mental illness, and nursing-home care are all on its list of problems some lackey has stamped “insurmountable” and filed away.

The department needs to be broken up into smaller units that can function effectively. Diamond’s bill is a tiny step toward doing that.

Emphasis on tiny.

No, I’m not related to Sen. Diamond. More intelligent questions can be emailed at [email protected].