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April 26, 2004

Baxter abuse victims may get more money

From: Press Herald, ME - Apr 26, 2004

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Members of Maine's deaf community and their advocates hope the Legislature will follow through on a proposal to add another $6 million to a state fund to compensate victims of abuse at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf.

The Senate voted unanimously two weeks ago to include an amendment in its proposed budget package that calls for the funding to the Baxter Compensation Authority. The money would come from $8 million that would be realized through a restructuring of the way the state makes its debt payments.

"I am very hopeful that it will go through," Jonathan Connick, executive director of the Maine Center on Deafness, said last week. However, he said he understands that continued questions remain about funding for the proposal, which still needs approval from the House.

The amendment is the latest attempt by lawmakers to find a way to add money to the compensation fund, which the state established in 2001 to compensate former students who were physically and sexually abused at the state school for the deaf, located on Mackworth Island in Falmouth.

When legislators allotted $6 million to the fund two years ago, they said that it would not be enough, and now the money has been used up with less than one-third of the 270 claimants so far having received compensation. John Shattuck, director of the Baxter Compensation Authority, says he expects another 70 or 80 victims to file claims before the filing deadline in 2006.

A majority of legislators on both sides of the aisle have indicated strong support for providing more funding for the victims. However, lawmakers so far have failed to agree on how to come up with the money in a year of state budget shortfalls.

Questions also remain about the level of funding that would win final support. Gov. John Baldacci did not include any compensation funding in his budget but said through his spokesman, Lee Umphrey, that he hoped money could be found during the budget process.

Last week, Umphrey said "it probably won't be the full amount of $6 million," because Baldacci's finance commissioner, Rebecca Wyke, has concerns about how the proposed debt restructuring might affect the state's bond rating.

"That's one reason not to go as high as $6 million," Umphrey said. However, he added "overall the governor is supportive of doing something and has been all along."

The amendment for Baxter compensation was championed by Sen. Mary Cathcart, D-Orono, who is co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Throughout the session, she and other lawmakers have searched for ways to find funding for the Baxter victims - such as taking $3 million from unappropriated surplus monies expected in the new fiscal year - but Cathcart said restructuring the debt seemed a better way. "It just seemed like too good an opportunity to get $6 million," she said.

Although the amendment passed 35-0, the Senate's budget package stalled before legislators took last week off as a break. Senators are expected to resume debate on it when they return Tuesday. April 27 The House has given all-but-final approval to the overall budget package but the package would need to return to the House for approval of the Baxter compensation amendment and some other items.

Rep. Joe Brannigan, D-Portland, the other co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said, "I'm hoping very much that this particular piece will stick. I think it has support on both sides."

It's not known exactly how many former students were abused in years past at the school and at the Maine School for the Deaf, which is what the facility was called before it moved to Mackworth Island in 1957. Students had complained of abuse for years but school officials always denied it. Finally, a 1982 investigation by the Attorney General's Office found physical and sexual abuse had occurred but no criminal charges were ever brought, in part because the statute of limitations had expired.

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791- 6367 or at:

Copyright © Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.