April 06, 2020

Frustrated witnesses rap DHS at forum on child support issues

AUGUSTA — Testimony Thursday during a public hearing before the Maine Family Law Advisory Commission was expected to focus on child support issues. Instead, more than half of those who addressed the commission lashed out at the Department of Human Services.

The commission, according to its chair, District Judge John Levy, is a nonpartisan body appointed to review Maine’s family laws and report back to the Legislature any recommendations for change.

The panel periodically holds public hearings to gather information about specific aspects of the law. Thursday’s hearing was on child support, with an emphasis on the problems that can stem from shared custody arrangements, which Levy said is becoming increasingly common in Maine.

Witnesses described the frustration that accompanies long waits for court dates due to the crowded docket, especially when seeking a modification to a custody order because of a change in circumstances. They detailed the apparent inequities in financial and visitation arrangements that seem to favor mothers over fathers.

It is hoped that the new Family Division of Maine District Court, which is expected to be up and running in May, will take care of some of the problems.

But the bulk of Thursday’s testimony was about what’s wrong with DHS.

One after another, witnesses for nearly two hours told stories of losing their children or grandchildren to what they called a greedy, power-hungry system that relies on unsubstantiated, even fictional, allegations of abuse to justify removing children from their homes.

They came to the commission hearing, they said, because they knew of no other outlet for their complaints.

“Complaints from many corners of the state concerning abusive treatment by DHS workers are ignored,” said James Bell, who drove to Augusta from Boston to speak on behalf of his half-brother, Wayne Pierce of Houlton.

Pierce was accused of abusing his son in 1996. Bell said Thursday the boy later admitted to “making up the story.” Criminal charges against Pierce were dropped, but his son remains in DHS custody pending a Jan. 29 court hearing.

“Suggestions that DHS has gone beyond the protection of children and into the realm of abuse of citizenry and perhaps kidnapping are responded to only in terms of the recourse available in the courts, which appears not to be a real option,” Bell told the commission. “I suggest that DHS is a state agency immune from public scrutiny, lacking oversight from either legislators or citizenry, and whose reason for existence depends on the identification of victims.”

Bell testified that he had learned from his family’s lawyer that, according to DHS, Bell had also been sexually victimized by Pierce, who is eight years older, and that DHS was planning to use that information to establish a pattern of abuse by Pierce.

“I have stated in writing that no such abuse ever occurred,” said Bell. “DHS did not ask me if I had been `abused,’ or for that matter even speak to me before labeling me a victim.”

DHS Commissioner Kevin Concannan said Thursday he is familiar with the case in Houlton and is “confident we’re doing the right thing there.”

Concannon also said anyone with a complaint about DHS or one of its employees can take one of several actions. They can talk to the branch manager in their regional DHS office, appeal to Nancy Carlson, the director of the Bureau of Children and Family Services, or go directly to Concannan’s office.

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