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Public Records Shed Light on Maine’s Failure to Protect Most Vulnerable Children | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

Public records from Maine’s child welfare agency show multiple child protective services employees were disciplined, but not fired, for failures related to child welfare investigations in 2022.

In that same year, twenty-eight children died in cases where agents from the Maine DHHS were involved.

Although the records concern only a handful of employees from DHHS’s Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS), they provide previously unavailable insight into how the agency is struggling to execute on its core mission. The records also reveal that in several instances caseworkers feel overworked and overwhelmed by the volume of families they are assigned to work with.

Many of those closely involved in the movement to improve the state of child welfare in Maine point out that in most instances, the shortcomings of individual case workers ultimately stem from the failures of the DHHS more broadly.

Legislative efforts have been made repeatedly to address the Department’s shortcomings but have largely been unsuccessful to date. Lawmakers are poised, however, to consider a bill early next year that could potentially serve as a first step toward improving the well-being of children who are the subject of DHHS investigation.

Never-Before-Seen DHHS Disciplinary Records

“You have not met job performance expectations regarding timely and thorough completion of investigations within specified programmatic timeframes, entering documentation in a timely manner, planning and organizing, and seeing all critical case members within specified programmatic time frames,” one supervisor wrote of an employee on Jan. 3, 2022.

The target of that disciplinary report, a Child Protective Casework Supervisor, did not disagree with the findings of the report. They went on to receive compensation worth more than $100,000 in 2022, according to state payroll records.

Another report against a caseworker said the caseworker’s failure to follow home visit policies after a child was reunited with its family could “significantly impact child safety.”

The caseworker’s response to the allegations, however, is illuminating of the OCFS caseworker’s concerns about the agency’s leadership and supervisors.

In a letter responding to the complaint, that caseworker explained that she was overworked, overwhelmed, and dealing with cases transferred to her from other caseworkers who conducted incomplete investigations:

I currently have 15 cases on my caseload and have expressed feeling overwhelmed and admitted to my superiors that I have been struggling to stay on top of tasks for the past several months…Many of my cases were transferred to me in a severely neglected state (as well as having been opened already for a year) and as a new Caseworker, it has been very hard to get my cases on track given the unsustainable workload I have.

The caseworker said she simply did not have the time to make the hours-long drives necessary to meet check-in protocols.

“I do not feel this should be held against me because I expressed needing help and it took almost a month to coordinate assistance,” they said.

“I know I have strong Social Worker skills, but I feel the current environment at the Department is not conducive of success for the new/learning workers.”

A “Human Services Worker” who earned more than $75,000 in 2022 was written up for breaking agency policies, failing to properly document work, and failing to provide timely legal studies to the Attorney General’s Office (AGO).

A July 6, 2022 disciplinary report states the following of a Child Protective Services Caseworker who earned more than $65,000 last year: “On or about [REDACTED] you failed to follow Child Welfare policy/procedure by not reporting a child welfare matter.”

In August of 2022, a supervisor gave a written warning to a caseworker in Lewiston who failed to properly document her interactions with Maine families.

The report said the caseworker was “consistently behind on documentation.” As a result of the caseworker’s lack of timely record-keeping, the AGO in some cases found itself unprepared for court hearings.

“[The caseworker] has consistently been late with discovery. [Assistant Attorneys General] have emailed multiple times requesting updated discovery, however because narratives were not complete, full discovery was not sent out,” the complaint stated.

In December, that same employee was hit with another written reprimand over the same issues, with some cases three months overdue.

Another caseworker in Bangor who earned more than $76,000 last year was the subject of a lengthy complaint that detailed an entire year’s worth of failures to follow OCFS policies.

“There have been ongoing concerns regarding [the caseworker’s] lack of timely documentation, including but not limited to face to faces for critical case members, family plans, child plans, and trial home placements,” the complaint stated. “These sometimes go weeks without being entered or updated, even on cases we discuss are high priority in supervision.”

Although it is only tangentially related to child welfare investigations, it’s also worth pointing out that an OCFS Office Assistant was written up for referring to a co-worker using highly-offensive expletives — an allegation the employee denied.

State payroll records from 2022 show that DHHS currently employs nearly 700 child protective service caseworkers and caseworker supervisors.

On the other hand, DHHS only employs nine child protective services investigators.

In that year, DHHS spent $2,260,533.98 on overtime wages for caseworkers.

According to Maine’s Bureau of Human Resources, caseworkers receive $43,201 salaries and can earn up to $58,000 in base pay after several years.

For their supervisors, the pay range is $52,582 to $71,406.

DHHS initially resisted disclosing the disciplinary records to the Maine Wire, stating in January that it would cost almost $5,000 to find the records responsive to the original record request.

In response to a narrowed request, DHHS insisted on a $950 fee. After the documents were produced, the agency learned that its estimate for the time involved in compiling the records was more than twice the reality. That resulted in a refund of $550.

Check Out the Never-Before-Seen 2022 Maine DHHS Personnel Documents Obtained by the Maine Wire

A Struggling Agency

DHHS, and OCFS in particular, has faced scrutiny in recent years as Mainers have called into question the Department’s ability to effectively protect the welfare of the children for whom they are responsible.

The number of child fatalities on the watch of DHHS has been increasing for more than a decade.

Although there has been bipartisan agreement for years that the state agency is experiencing serious problems, the ongoing search for solutions has been largely unsuccessful.

Legislative proposals in the 131st Legislature that aimed to improve Maine’s child welfare services failed to gather momentum this year, with several proposals getting rolled into a “study” bill.

In early 2023, Sen. Jeff Timberlake (R-Androscoggin) introduced LD 779, a bill establishing a new cabinet-level state agency – the Department of Child and Family Services – that would have taken on the child welfare duties currently assigned to the OCFS within the DHHS.

This bill, however, ultimately has struggled to get off the ground and has now been carried over to the next legislative session, which is scheduled to begin early next year.

There is, however, work actively being done to raise awareness of these issues and to push for the implementation of solutions that are may improve outcomes for Maine’s at-risk children.

The public records uncovered by the Maine Wire reflect the findings of the most recent report from the independent office tasked with investigating and evaluating Maine’s child welfare system.

According to the information presented in the 2022 Child Welfare Ombudsman Report, there is a continued “downward trend in child welfare practice,” including “multiple instances where the Department did not recognize risk to children, both during investigations and reunification cases.”

The report identified two primary areas of concern for the Maine DHHS, namely the decision making surrounding both “investigations” and family “reunification.”

More specifically, the Ombudsman found that, among other things, “out of home parents [were] not contacted,” “police records, court orders, and other documents [were] not collected,” “parents [were] not asked to drug screen,” and that there was an “over-reliance on prior incomplete investigations.”

Furthermore, the Ombudsman found that oftentimes “the focus of the investigation was on the initial allegation and not on all forms of child abuse and neglect even when new was reported.”

The Ombudsman also found that in 2022, “appropriate investigatory steps” were not always taken “to ensure that the correct decision [concerning reunification] is being made at the end of the case.”

“Even if enough information is collected throughout the case, a decision might be made to reunify a child when it is clear that the jeopardy to the child has not been alleviated,” the report said.

The report stated that issues such as these sometimes arise as a result of “not gathering enough information,” but more often than not, “the Department had sufficient facts to determine that the child was unsafe but did not recognize the risk to the children and act accordingly.”

A “lack of time for staff while investigating multiple families” was cited in the report as a likely cause for these oversights.

Read the Full 2022 Ombudsman Report

Increasing Child Fatalities

Child fatality data from DHHS dates back to 2007.

That year, seven children died despite the involvement of child protective services. In 2022, that number rose to twenty-eight, meaning that four times more children died that year compared to 2007 despite DHHS interventions.

Of these twenty-eight, eleven children were determined to have died as a result of “accidents,” including “motor vehicle accidents, drowning, fire, etc.” Six died as a result of “unsafe sleep.” For three others, the cause of death was classified as “sudden unexpected infant death.” Two children died from unspecified causes. One child was murdered. Only five of these children were determined to have died of “natural causes.”

In 2021, four children who had been previously involved with DHHS died within weeks of each other, prompting renewed scrutiny of the Department. Since then, the parents of all four children have been charged with either murder or manslaughter in connection with the children’s deaths.

Bill Diamond: Child Welfare Activist and Former State Senator

According to Bill Diamond, a child welfare activist for more than twenty years and former Democratic State Senator, 143 “children in state care” died from 2007 to 2021.

“I’m not at all relieved that they’re telling us they have a system now that’s better because it isn’t. It’s getting worse, and they said the same thing, every commissioner, since 2001,” Diamond said in a 2021 interview with News Center Maine.

That same year, in an effort to address these concerns, Diamond introduced LD 1263. Although the bill was passed by the Senate, it was later rejected in the House, leaving the child welfare crisis unaddressed yet again.

The bill introduced by Sen. Timberlake this year was largely based on Diamond’s efforts in 2021.

In early 2023, Diamond formed a nonprofit group called Walk a Mile in Their Shoes aimed at raising awareness of, and finding solutions to, Maine’s child welfare crisis. The group has also been conducting “in-depth research on child welfare” and “holding public forums to promote wide-ranging discussions by experts in the field of child protection.”

Diamond told the Maine Wire that Walk a Mile in Their Shoes’ “listening tour” has produced some “great insight into what the issues are and some real common sense ways to approach solving these ongoing problems.”

According to Diamond, the group will soon be releasing a report detailing the research that the non-profit has conducted and proposing attainable, common-sense solutions to the child welfare crisis.

“These problems have been under four different administrations. There’s nothing partisan about them,” Diamond said. He also said the search for solutions has remained largely nonpartisan as well, with both Republican and Democrat lawmakers getting involved with his organization’s efforts.

Regarding the potential causes of the child welfare crisis, Diamond specifically discussed a “lack of transparency within the Department,” arguing that “it’s difficult for them to admit that they have a problem.”

“We’ve learned that the communication is really broken. The communication from the mid-level, from the Department Director and down through the front line case workers…is not good,” Diamond said.

Diamond also addressed his thoughts on the role of individual case workers in this crisis.

“The case workers, sometimes, take a bum rap because they oftentimes work very, very hard with what they have,” he said. “But that’s a very difficult job. So they need the consistent support down through from their leadership, and many of them have told us that they really don’t get that. Too many times they don’t get that.”

“We have no choice. We have to change the culture,” he said. “We have to change how they run that office.”

As far as what changes should be pursued specifically, Diamond expressed strong support for reorganizing the Department such that their child welfare responsibilities are transferred to a new, separate agency outside of DHHS. Diamond stated, however, that making this a reality would likely take a lot of time and meet great resistance from the Department.

Moving child welfare responsibilities, however, is not the only solution that Diamond believes there is to this crisis. In fact, Diamond stated that there were a number of other solutions that “can be implemented almost immediately.”

“I think we can do so many other things…that will make a big difference as well,” he said.

“What we want to do is work with them. We’re not after anybody’s head. We’re not out there trying to embarrass anybody,” Diamond said. “But we are out there intently looking for ways to stop the current problems that result in these deaths. These kids should not be dying.”

Melanie Blair: Foster Parent and Child Welfare Activist

The Maine Wire also spoke with Melanie Blair, a Maine foster parent who currently advocates for children’s well-being with Walk a Mile in Their Shoes.

Having joined in on Walk a Mile in Their Shoes’ listening tour these past months, Blair laid out several of the common themes she identified “surrounding the issue that plague the safety and well being of children” under the watch of DHHS.

Among the problems she listed were: “an excessive focus on reunification at all costs, a lack of communication and follow through, retaliation when advocating for children and questioning Department decisions, policy and practice that are not followed, unrealistic expectations on caseworkers, a lack of services for children in care, a drug pandemic that is affecting the safety of and duration of care for children, and a lack of accountability, communication, follow through, collaboration and a complete disconnect from upper management.”

“I believe there are solutions to these problems, but we must strive for excellence to maintain the good workers and foster parents we already have. We must change the culture of fear and retaliation,” Blair said. “Until we do, we will continue to see a shortage of caseworkers and foster parents as well as experience the repeated abuse and neglect of children.”

Similarly to Diamond, Blair advocated for removing child welfare responsibilities from the DHHS. “We will never be able to make substantive policy changes until we are able to pull back the iron curtain that currently exists,” she said.

Blair also stated that “the voice of the front line workers need to be heard and considered, free from retaliation.” To do this, Blair suggested establishing a group with which these individuals can “can file a concern” and have it “looked in to and acted upon immediately, rather than waiting until another tragedy occurs.”

Blair also advocated that, in addition to creating a culture in which the work done by case workers and foster parents is clearly valued, the Department ought to offer case workers a rate of pay that is more aligned with the national standard for such positions.

“Whether it be a private business, a large corporation, or a state bureaucracy, you are only as successful as your lowest level worker,” Blair said. “If they are failing, your system is broken.”

“Three years of The Ombudsmans’ Report raising concerns regarding the decision-making practices of OCFS, as well as the recent report designating Maine as the number-one state in the nation for child maltreatment should sound a deafening alarm for our leaders to initiate and legislate substantial policy change and truly put the safety and well being of children first and foremost,” Blair stated.

According to the Kids Count Data Book for 2023, published by Maine Children’s Alliance, the number of children experiencing “substantiated child maltreatment” increased 30% from 2017 to 2021. The number of children, per capita, who are abused or neglected in Maine is the highest in the country and more than two-times higher than the national rate.

Moving Toward Solutions

Whatever the precise underlying reason or reasons for the Department’s shortcomings may be, the Maine DHHS clearly continues to fail in fulfilling its obligation to protect Maine’s most vulnerable children, and something must be done to address this.

The Legislature is expected to consider Timberlake’s bill establishing a new cabinet-level child welfare agency at some point next year during their second session.

In a statement to the Maine Wire, Timberlake said that he has heard from “a number of individuals ready to come testify in support of it when the public hearing is set.” Timberlake also noted that this bill “has a bipartisan list of co-sponsors” including the Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee Sen. Joe Baldacci (D-Penobscot).

“This is not a party line issue, I am working with folks from all ends of the political spectrum on this issue who care about the well-being and safety of children in Maine,” he said.

Timberlake described personally hearing from constituents, foster care families, and DHHS employees about the system’s shortcomings:

I hear from constituents and individuals around the state that their phone calls go unanswered day after day when they call to make reports about children in dangerous situations or who need help for their own children who have mental health needs.

I hear from families who are foster care families that they are not getting reimbursements for care they are providing and they call they are told that DHHS is behind on reimbursements.

I have also heard from front line workers at DHHS who are in the field, who do a great job, that it is tough for them to get answers from management.

“It is very clear that the Department of Health and Human Services is too large with all of the issues that are going on and not being addressed. It only makes sense to create a new Department of Child and Family Services that would handle issues related to child and family services and child welfare,” Timberlake said.

“I am not saying that this bill would be the magic bullet, but what is currently happening is not working and we can and need to do better,” he said.

It remains to be seen if Maine lawmakers will be able to come together next year and take steps to effectively address these ongoing and highly consequential concerns about the Maine DHHS when they reconvene for the second session of the 131st Legislature in January.

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