September 21, 2019
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Maine children in danger risk getting caught up in child welfare whiplash

Emily Burnham | BDN
Emily Burnham | BDN
A photo of Marissa Kennedy is seen on a telephone pole during one of several vigils honoring her memory.

Investigators from the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability are attempting to home in on what went wrong with Maine’s Child Protective Services system in the lead-up to the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick. They’re also taking a wholesale look at the state’s Child Protective Services system.

One area to explore is how the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is judging the severity of cases of suspected child abuse and neglect when they’re first reported. Is the department downgrading too many cases, so reports of suspected abuse that would normally trigger a Child Protective Services investigation aren’t triggering further action? Is that lack of intervention leaving children in unsafe situations?

[DHHS tried to cut back on the number of child abuse cases where it intervened]

Last year, the workers at the state’s child abuse reporting hotline who make preliminary recommendations on whether caseworkers should follow up with families started using a tool called Structured Decision Making. The tool gives intake workers a variety of factors to ask about to help them evaluate the level of danger to the children — such as whether abuse has already taken place or whether there’s drug use in the home — and determine whether state protective workers should intervene immediately, or whether a less intensive intervention is appropriate.

Child welfare agencies across the country use Structured Decision Making to ensure their workers make consistent decisions about which cases they take on, and to make sure caseworkers intervene when children are in greatest danger. The tool can help child welfare agencies make better decisions about deploying caseworkers to the households where children are in greatest danger and preventing the state from intervening where it’s unnecessary.

It’s important to note that Structured Decision Making is not the ultimate tool. It’s no substitute for a full staff of well-trained, caring child protective caseworkers. And it’s a tool that agencies should deploy with the goal of improving children’s safety.

[Maine lawmakers OK new probe of child deaths, abuse response system]

Unfortunately, the motivation behind Maine DHHS’ adoption of Structured Decision Making appears to be simply a drive to reduce the number of child abuse cases in which state child protective workers intervene. As the BDN’s Maine Focus team recently reported, department officials on multiple occasions discussed Structured Decision Making in the context of reducing intervention in child welfare cases — without any mention of improving children’s safety.

“Structured Decision Making is a new tool which will support intake in only bringing in cases which have legal mandate,” a state child welfare official explained to the Maine Child Welfare Advisory Panel last May.

DHHS’ “door is wide open and families are being served inconsistently,” the child welfare official told the same group a month later.

We have no desire for an overly intrusive Child Protective Services division that intervenes in the lives of families who don’t require the intervention. But from the LePage administration, we haven’t seen evidence of a well thought-out policy to achieve the right balance between intervention when children are in danger and keeping children with their families when that’s a viable option.

[LePage says he’ll submit orders to change Maine’s child welfare system]

While DHHS last year was attempting to scale back its intervention, seemingly for the sake of scaling back, Gov. Paul LePage today is calling for the exact opposite — a more aggressive Child Protective Services division that removes more children in potential danger from their families.

And throughout his administration, the governor has chipped away at the safety net that helps families stay secure and prevents financially tenuous situations from devolving into abusive ones. Today, 17,500 fewer Maine children benefit from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families than at the start of the LePage administration. Fewer of their parents have health coverage following the administration’s cuts to Medicaid. And the administration is in the process of cutting a child abuse prevention program that aimed to help at-risk families before their children became unsafe.

Maine’s children in most danger have felt the effects of an administration intent on rolling back government assistance to serve an ideology. Now, we fear they’ll be caught up in the child welfare whiplash.

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