Give these parents the right to sue the state for lax oversight in preschool abuse case

Honestly, I am fighting back tears as I type this post. Tears of rage, tears of frustration, tears of empathy for children and families who were not protected by our state.

Last week the Maine House took a positive step and voted to allow parents of children who attended Sunshine Child Care and Preschool in Lyman to sue the state. The Maine Senate still needs to vote, but the House passed a measure to eliminate the state’s immunity from lawsuits under the Maine Tort Claims Act in this instance.

Five separate claims of abuse at the preschool have been filed in court against the Department of Health and Human Services, which licensed the facility. But because the state has wide immunity from lawsuits, the plaintiffs have to get the Legislature to waive the immunity before they can continue.

Winter State House file photo. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Winter State House file photo. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Investigations into the case by the media and a federal audit brought to light a history of abuse at the center that included reports being made to the state — allegations the state was slow to address. Rep. Louie Luchini from Ellsworth said the abuse allegations included “verbal abuse, name calling, forced feeding of children, physical abuse, children being hit, slammed on the floor, hair grabbed – horrible, horrible instances.”

From an article at about the case:

Documents obtained by the Press Herald revealed that DHHS managers waited more than a year to take action against Sunshine though inspectors had found that children at the facility were force-fed milk, “slammed” to the ground, had soap put in their mouths and were otherwise abused.

Two former child care inspectors, Nicole White and Charley LaFlamme, came forward to the Press Herald detailing numerous problems within the agency, including the lag in time it took to take action and overall poor management of the department.

In the wake of the fallout, DHHS has hired more inspectors and has improved communications with parents through a website that rates individual centers and lists any problems found during inspection.

I was disturbed to see that the case and its allegations of abuse date back to the beginning of the LePage administration. I won’t pretend the lax state of affairs at DHHS is our governor’s fault. I’ve written more than one post about the department’s perennial and ever-snowballing problems that span across recent administrations.

I will say that I am outraged that, at the same time Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Gov. Paul LePage were stressing the importance of hiring more fraud investigators, they should have been worrying about the physical and emotional safety of children at state-licensed facilities. Anyone remember back in 2012 when LePage was all gungho to hire more investigators to find instances of adult recipients misusing social service programs? 

That was the same year the state apparently did nothing about the problems at Sunshine Child Care. Were the administration’s investigation investment priorities a bit askew?

In January the LePage administration was proud to announce it had uncovered $1.2 million in welfare fraud in 2015. Well, I hope the Legislature completes whatever process it needs to complete to allow those parents to sue the state. I hope that the lawsuit moves forward quickly enough to happen while this administration is still in office.

Mostly, though, I hope the total cost of the lawsuit — from awards to the families to legal and court expenses — makes that $1.2 million look like the piss hole in the snow that it really is when it comes to reforming what really needs to be reformed at DHHS.

There is no award amount that will take away the permanent scars and developmental changes that childhood trauma causes. There may be an award amount, though, that is significant enough to realign our focus and priorities when it comes to this troubled department.

To the parents pursuing legal action, I am sorry our state let you down that way. You have every right to want to make us pay.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.