Guardians, computers targeted

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The Legislature’s new government accountability office has picked its first target – court appointed guardians in child custody cases – with some questioning whether the system works hard enough to keep families together.

A second review also is in the works to see how the state can avoid meltdowns when it installs new computer systems. The ongoing multi-million-dollar problem with the Department of Health and Human Services failing to pay its Medicaid providers on time is the impetus for that probe.

“That sparked this whole thing,” said Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA), in explaining the computer system review.

Ashcroft said her fledgling department and the legislative Oversight Committee that works with it, wanted to tackle some projects of high interest so people would know they were in business. The office just started in January after several years of legislative wrangling.

While the committee and department are working to set up an annual work schedule, the Legislature earlier this month empowered the group to interrupt its usual work flow for emergencies.

Legislation sponsored by committee member, Rep. Robert Crosthwaite, R-Ellsworth, allows immediate review of a government program if “there is a suspicion of a major auditing problem or major fraud or major mismanagement of public funds.”

Crosthwaite said the legislation is “giving the watchdog teeth.”

Absent that kind of emergency for now, the committee is relying on suggestions. A survey sent out to all legislators, but returned by only 23, listed these topics as being of interest:

Bureau of Child and Family Services

Office of the Governor and its staffing levels

Department of Health and Human Services

State Planning Office and its functions

State Rep. Ed Dugay, D-Cherryfield, the co-chairman of the Oversight Committee, admits he has a special interest in court-appointed guardians or guardian ad litems. He recalled a time when only 18 percent of the children in Washington County, who were removed from their homes by the child protective services, were reunited with their biological parents.

While things have gotten much better, he said, there are still cases where the court-appointed guardian automatically sides with the Department of Health and Human Services or the attorney general instead of working to reunite kids with their parents.

“In seven out of eight cases, the guardian ad litem always goes with the department,” he said, pointing to courtroom scenes where the guardian “sits with the assistant AG or the DHHS,” with the parents on the other side.

“I’ve wanted to investigate this group for a long time,” he said. “It’s beyond dysfunctional.”

Dugay said he wants to avoid the perception that the office is doing his bidding, but that may be hard since the four-term legislator led a march from Ellsworth to Augusta in 2003 to demand an overhaul of the state’s child welfare system.

OPEGA Director Ashcroft said while she can’t control the public’s perception of what spurs an investigation, she can promise objectivity once a study is launched by her office.

“I’ve come to the conclusion I’m not going to be able to do anything about what goes on in the public arena,” she said, but once her office takes on a task, the Oversight Committee is out of the picture.

The committee is not involved in the investigation, she said, and “Once a report is issued, they vote on whether to endorse it, but that does not prevent the report from being issued.”

While the OPEGA office now is relying on legislative feedback to decide what issues to tackle, Ashcroft said it will develop its own criteria based on the amount of money a program spends; its impact on the public; how long it has been in operation; and, its complexity and possible overlap with other programs.

When fully staffed the office will have seven people, funded with a $995,000 budget that includes money for outside consulting. Ashcroft is currently looking for a consultant with experience in auditing information systems for the review of the state’s computer planning process.