Does Commissioner Mayhew understand the concept of recovery?

Dear Mary Mayhew:

I’ve got to stop writing to you like this — creatively speaking, I’m getting a little bored with this trope, though I’ll never tire of speaking up for the marginalized.

Two letters down, and so much left to discuss regarding our most vulnerable citizens — how infant mortality is on the rise in Maine or the fact that the state might be falling short on investigating abuse and neglect cases involving disabled adults. 

I haven’t yet talked about the second day of public hearings on the DHHS portion of the governor’s budget proposal or the somber faces on the clerics filing out of the chamber after testifying that day. It was quite a sight to see the more than thirty of them walking quietly toward the vigil that followed in the Hall of Flags, sponsored by the Council of Churches.

Over 30 religious leaders testify against the DHHS portion of the governor's budget proposal 1/22/16.   Photo provided by and used with the permission of the Maine Council of Churches.

Over 30 religious leaders testify against the DHHS portion of the governor’s budget proposal 1/22/16. Photo provided by and used with the permission of the Maine Council of Churches.

They joined roughly 150 people who gathered to pray multi-denominationally for a more merciful budget, inspiring my first letter.

Hanging in the back of the Council of Churches' prayer vigil in the Hall of Flags 2/22/17.  Photo by Trish Callahan

Hanging in the back of the Council of Churches’ prayer vigil in the Hall of Flags 2/22/17. Photo by Trish Callahan

Maine’s most vulnerable children were on my mind when I wrote the second letter — children who experience hunger or who need safe home environments or parents who can access treatment and go into recovery. Knowing that circumstances seem to be getting worse for those kids under this administration is distressing.

Kids can’t hang out at legislative hearings to try to confront you about policies they don’t understand. They can’t hire lobbyists they don’t know they need with money they don’t have to tell the grown-ups in charge to make sure they’re okay.

They just suffer.

This last letter is for all the people who are in some stage of recovery or in some stage of wanting to go into recovery. We need a leader of Maine DHHS who understands and supports the concept.

People like my friend Dick. I met him and others outside the hearings covering changes to programs like TANF, SNAP and General Assistance.  Dick was there to testify against denying people with felony drug convictions access to those programs.

A felon himself, Dick calls himself “a work in progress.” His felony conviction was not specifically a drug charge, however he attributes the severity of his behavior at the time to untreated mental health problems and rampant substance abuse. He said it could have easily been a drug charge.

There are two reasons Dick turned his life around. First he credits his mom and something she said during the last year of his incarceration. She told him that he needed to look at his mental health the way she looked at her diabetes:  if she didn’t take care of it every day, she was going to die.

Dick realized she was right.  If he didn’t tend to his mental health and substance use issues, he would die — maybe a long, slow death filled with jail sentences, but no kids, no relationships, none of the things he wanted.

Second, he credits Maine’s social service safety net and the mentors, supports and resources he found there. Dick’s authentic. He wears the regret for his past on his face as readily as he wears the gratitude for the people and programs that got him to where he is today.

Where he is today is pretty impressive relative to where he was on January 4, 2013 — leaving prison after roughly five years. “Prior to being released that day jails, prisons, and institutions were a revolving door for me,” Dick said.

Now, he’s due to complete his studies for a bachelor of arts in sociology from USM in the fall of this year. He plans to immediately continue with graduate school to become a clinical social worker.

Dick wants to be a part of what works when it comes to rehabilitating people like him. He is already working for a provider doing peer support, something he was introduced to after working in case management skills training and daily living skills. He found the peer support model to be the best fit for making a difference in people’s lives.

“You can self-disclose and make that connection with people,” he said, describing the service he provides.

Dick’s open about benefiting from SNAP, MaineCare, and food pantries. He’s currently working with Maine Vocational Rehabilitation, and considers his counselor there, as well as staff from a Goodwill of Northern New England program and CARES in Winthrop, as essential to his recovery.

And his eyes teared when he expressed his gratitude for his current employer who took a risk hiring him with his record.

In closing, I wish your idea of welfare reform actually meant re-forming the system so more and more recipients achieve outcomes similar to Dick’s. His story is a story about taxpayers seeing a return on their investment and their communities strengthened.

Cutting access to programs without first understanding the how’s and why’s of what works in conjunction with what other things or the how’s and why’s of what’s not working for whom isn’t helpful. In the long run those measures won’t fix anything for Maine’s communities.

Dick gets it. I wish you did, too.

Thanks you for your time and best wishes,


Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

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