In the 15 or so months since two Maine youngsters died from abuse of their houses despite having had repeated contact with child welfare caseworkers, state leaders have vowed to reform the beleaguered system.
However deployment of those reforms, gleaned from two separate investigations into the department — certainly one of which is still ongoing — after the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick, have hit bureaucratic snags.
In the meantime, work for some caseworkers continues to pile on with little indication of reprieve. Three Portland caseworkers who spoke on the situation of anonymity to keep away from skilled reprisals stated, if anything, features of their job are getting worse. Job requirements are “literally not achievable,” caseload expectations and sizes stay “unmanageable,” and paperwork continues to lavatory down productivity, whereas evaluation numbers proceed to climb.
“We are drowning. Everyone in this office is drowning right now,” stated one caseworker, and “we have no space to be honest with [our supervisors] about how things are going.”
What’s the priority?
New Office of Child and Family Providers Director Todd Landry, who just completed his second week on the job, is assembling a group to prioritize an inventory of 20 reforms, which have been first identified at first of this yr and have been pared from an inventory of about 100. He stated in early Might of his workplace that he has “honestly never seen a moment in time when there was so much hope and optimism for the future and what could be.”
However what Landry sees as optimism others, together with these caseworkers, warily view as out-of-touch hopefulness.
An Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability report in February that polled caseworkers throughout Maine discovered sagging morale, high turnover rates, and workloads so heavy, they prevented many caseworkers from meeting the demands of their jobs.
Lots of these qualities have remained, Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi and the Portland caseworkers reported. In the southern Maine office, some supervisors continue to inconsistently use “discipline as a motivation technique,” one of the caseworkers stated. She was just lately reprimanded for failing to properly fill out case documentation in a well timed manner, and no help was given to help her keep away from the same situation in the future, she stated.
One other caseworker, eager to keep away from an analogous destiny and since extra time is tough to return by, just lately devoted eight hours of a weekend, with out pay, to complete her outstanding paperwork.
As a result of there’s typically not enough time to finish every job requirement, spending extra time on paperwork invariably means fewer in-person visits, they stated. Duplicative case documentation requirements, which all three stated take up most of their time, haven’t changed and continue to be a burden, although decreasing redundancies is on the division’s record of needed reforms.
As long as caseload sizes remain untenable, “there’s always going to be some place where you take away from one [job requirement] to fill another,” one stated.
When the Government Oversight Committee was first introduced with knowledge backing up these caseworkers’ experiences, they tasked Well being and Human Providers Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew with presenting an ongoing progress report to point out how improvements would take effect.
But on Friday, when Lambrew and Landry appeared before the committee, few new concrete details emerged.
“We directed you, commissioner, to come before us today with concrete steps,” committee co-chair Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, informed Lambrew. “It seems like we’ve been talking about this for quite a while now.”
Meanwhile, assessments by caseworkers into probably at-risk households have remained excessive. After almost doubling between 2017 and 2018 — throughout which era unbiased investigators found a “noted lack of urgency” on the a part of caseworkers dealing with these assessments — the rate has continued to rise in 2019, peaking at more than 1,000 in February — a month-to-month figure surpassed only twice up to now two years.
Throughout that same two-year interval, at the least 22 youngsters died despite the child protecting providers system receiving considerations about abuse or neglect involving their families.
Employed for no less than 5 years each as caseworkers — comparably longer than most — all three stated this week that the tonal differences underneath Democratic Gov. Janet Mills provides them “greater hope for a shift,” but the heightened give attention to department overhaul has not resulted in any detectable modifications. Their skepticism is compounded by the modifications instituted beneath former Gov. Paul LePage last yr, lots of which have been later deemed not finally useful.
“We’re having more difficult cases, and the burden is really falling on the people who are already overwhelmed,” one stated.
“I don’t feel like this message is getting across,” one other added.
Lambrew on Friday morning advised lawmakers that the division is “aggressively assessing” modifications most wanted to “support these climbing caseloads.” Since October, for instance, the division has employed more than 100 employees, together with greater than 80 caseworkers.
But rising numbers of caseloads and assessments have offset plenty of the advantages achieved by hiring more employees.
Landry is proceeding cautiously, understanding that “policy swings” through the previous yr have led to “some real confusion” and “unintended consequences” for workers. That’s why he’s starting his job with out new objectives but is extra intent on pushing ahead pre-existing ones, saying he doesn’t need to “contribute to the problem.”
Caseworkers in Maine “have been burned before, and I would fully appreciate they don’t necessarily want to cast their lot with the next new person that walks in the door,” he stated.
A give attention to reform
Landry relocated to Maine late last month from Fort Value, Texas, the place he served as the chief government officer for a nonprofit that gives counseling and academic coaching for youngsters and households.
From 2007 to 2009, Landry was director of Nebraska’s Department of Well being and Human Providers. During that point, he managed fallout from the state’s newly enacted Protected Haven Regulation, which at first allowed mother and father to give up youngsters of any age to state custody with out prosecution. As an alternative of overburdened mother and father giving up their infants, youngsters older than 10 and as previous as 17 have been dropped off at hospitals. Legislators shortly held an emergency special session to amend the regulation as relevant to infants only.
Like Lambrew, who was employed by Mills in January, Landry has assured larger department transparency for both employees and the public. In the course of the next few months, for example, the department plans to unveil user-friendly dashboards for employees and ultimately on its website to make knowledge monitoring easier. Landry additionally needs employees to be extra communicative with potential foster and adoptive mother and father, which incorporates refining the training required by the state.
He also has begun to streamline the method for licensing new foster mother and father. On the end of March, Maine had 1,464 licensed foster households and 1,991 youngsters in state custody, in line with department knowledge.
Landry also stated he’s “absolutely committed” to broadening assets shortly to reduce the period of time caseworkers spend in hospitals and lodge rooms with minors till a protected placement is discovered — a problematic facet of the job skilled by many caseworkers that was identified in the February OPEGA report.
Widespread floor with lawmakers?
Though rebuilding belief with all parties is a priority, Landry hasn’t shed a lot mild on how he plans to coordinate with lawmakers wanting to see reforms, some of whom have already passed payments to that end. Lambrew has begun weighing in on some, together with just lately opposing a invoice from Sen. Invoice Diamond, D-Windham, to type an ad hoc investigatory fee to overtake the system. Lambrew stated such a commission can be “duplicative of work that is already occurring and would slow down rather than accelerate needed improvements to Child Protective Services.”
Two bills are awaiting votes that might bulk up the Child Welfare Ombudsman program — a third-party watchdog with entry to all of DHHS’ in any other case confidential data. The nonpartisan office, typically used to spotlight department shortcomings and advocate better practices, is at present staffed with just one full-time employee.
Lawmakers have also proposed measures to again emphasize family reunification, hoping to reverse a regulation handed final yr beneath LePage after Chick’s grandfather’s fiancee and Kennedy’s mother and father have been charged with their murders. However considerations about reunification remain within the wake of Alberi’s 2018 discovering that there were “significant issues” with department determination makers who either too shortly reunited youngsters with at-risk families or stored them in state custody longer than they wanted to be.
On Thursday, the House and Senate voted unanimously in favor of a invoice requiring DHHS employees, together with Landry, to evaluation child welfare caseload requirements, with enter from caseworkers and the marketing consultant presently auditing division practices, and provide you with advisable modifications. If signed by Mills, it should go into impact instantly.
The important thing for building an action plan for the remaining 20 objectives will require “working with urgency, but not haste,” Landry stated.
However Alberi, also recognizing there has been little vital change to help caseworkers, stated she’s fearful “we’ve gotten away from the central issue that brought us here.”
At all times, she stated, “the focus should be on whether or not children are safe,” and that begins by giving caseworkers the tools they want as a way to make those calls. The truth is that, in the yr since Kennedy and Chick died, even “though it’s a work in progress, I still don’t think [caseworkers] have the support or training that they need.”