Dec. 5-A judge has denied Maine lawmakers access to the confidential child protection files of four children murdered in 2021.
In a ruling issued Monday, Superior Court Justice William R. Stokes denied the Government Oversight Committee's motion to compel the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to release the files to the committee. Stokes said the confidential records can only be shared with the Legislature's accountability office staff and those who provide direct child protective services.
In his eight-page ruling, Stokes said he appreciated why the committee, which as state watchdog oversees the proper functioning of all state programs, wanted to see the documents, but noted the legislature deliberately gave such access only to staff when it created the committee.
"One looks in vain for any provision of law relating to the committee that suggests that it can access records that are declared privileged or confidential," Stokes wrote when evaluating the committee's legal grounds for seeking the records.
"In the court's view," he wrote, "the Legislature's failure to grant the Committee its own statutory authority to compel the disclosure of confidential information, or any direction as to how it should be treated once obtained, was deliberate."
The Legislature's powerful Government Oversight Committee sued DHHS, setting up a test of the state constitution's separation of powers, after the agency refused to comply with a subpoena to provide the committee with confidential files of the four children murdered in 2021.
Instead of giving the information to lawmakers, the agency delivered the files to the state's independent, nonpartisan watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which will review the records and issue a report to the committee.
DHHS maintained the accountability office, OPEGA, and not the committee, is the statutorily appointed agency to receive the information under state law. That is an opinion that Stokes essentially echoed in his Monday ruling.
In a statement, DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew praised the court's affirmation of state policy.
"We will continue to fully cooperate with the (OPEGA), the official investigatory arm of the Legislature, on its review as we pursue our vital work with partners throughout the state to protect Maine children from abuse and neglect," she said.
Committee co-chair Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, said she respected the Superior Court ruling. Stover said the committee remained committed to doing everything it can to ensure that all Maine children are safe and being protected.
"This was just one part of that ongoing work," Stover said in a prepared statement. "The (OPEGA) has already begun a thorough records review, and its findings will be assessed by the committee and made available to the people of Maine in the upcoming 131st Legislature."
Maine's child protective services program has been under scrutiny in recent years because of high profile cases of abuse and neglect that have left several young children dead. The files at the heart of the judicial battle relate to the deaths of Jaden Harden, Hailey Goding, Maddox Williams and Reginald Melvin.
Harding was found dead in Brewer on June 1, 2021. He was just 6 weeks old. His father, Ronald Harding, is accused of shaking his son to death and has been charged with manslaughter. Jury selection and a trial are scheduled for Feb. 27.
Five days later, 3-year-old Goding was found dead in Old Town. Police arrested her mother, Hillary Goding, and charged her with manslaughter. She pled guilty to manslaughter in September and was sentenced to serve 19 years of a 26-year jail sentence.
On June 20, 3-year-old Williams of Stockton Springs died after being taken to a local hospital with what prosecutors say were "inflicted injuries." His mother, Jessica Trefethen, was found guilty of depraved indifference murder in an October trial. She will be sentenced Dec. 20.
Both Goding and Williams had prior contact with state child protective services.
Reginald Melvin of Milo, who has a history of domestic violence, was indicted on a murder charge in the beating death of his month-old son Sylus Melvin in August 2021. The 29-year-old's trial has not yet been scheduled.
GOC members have pressed for access to the full case files to determine the extent that the state was involved in any of these cases, saying that previous inquiries have been hampered by the lack of access to detailed case files.
In all, 29 children died last year and at least 27 had some sort of child protective history before or during their lives, according to state data, which is not a comprehensive list of all child deaths. That doesn't include five deaths in which criminal cases have been filed.