The man who last year led the launch of an unemployment claims system that left many unemployed workers unable to claim benefits during a high-layoff season is now a top official in the state office that oversees child welfare.
John Feeney started work Monday as chief operating officer of the state Office of Child and Family Services, according to a memo sent to staff. The office is the Maine Department of Health and Human Services division that oversees child protective services, foster care, child care subsidies for low-income families, mental health services for children and domestic violence programs.
Feeney’s appointment comes weeks before Democratic Gov.-elect Janet Mills is set to take office, with Democrats eager for an overhaul at DHHS after eight years of the LePage administration.
In an email, DHHS spokeswoman Emily Spencer wrote that the chief operating officer’s hiring “is something we have been working on for some time.” The department originally posted the opening in August and conducted a first round of interviews before advertising the opening again. The agency hired Feeney following a second round of interviews, Spencer said.
His hiring comes a few months after lawmakers approved more than $20 million in new funding for the state’s Child Protective Services program, which has come under close scrutiny in the past year following the deaths of two young girls involved with Child Protective Services, allegedly at the hands of their caregivers.
The money is paying for new caseworkers, managers and clerical staff for the overwhelmed program; higher payment rates for foster parents; and a new child welfare information system that could ultimately cost $30 million.
Last year as director of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation at the Maine Department of Labor, Feeney oversaw the rollout of ReEmployME, the state’s new system that unemployed workers use to file for their benefits and report their job search activities. Feeney, a 20-year U.S. Navy veteran, became the bureau’s director in August 2016.
Unemployed workers discovered soon after the system’s launch that they were locked out of their online accounts, which they had to use to report job search activities — a requirement for receiving benefits. When they called a hotline for help and to have their accounts unlocked, many waited hours on the phone.
A confidential memo written by a labor department employee and obtained by the Morning Sentinel newspaper in Waterville described a rushed rollout of the new unemployment software despite doubts among Department of Labor employees that the system would work. Maine launched ReEmployME as part of a four-state consortium that also included Connecticut, Mississippi and Rhode Island.
The memo implicated Feeney specifically, saying he ordered the destruction of records detailing hundreds of voicemail messages from unemployed workers experiencing trouble with the new filing system. According to the memo, he also sent out a notice to unemployment claimants warning them that they would have to start filing for benefits only online in a matter of days, using the filing system that still wasn’t working, or else lose their benefits. The memo also said the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation at one point shut off the voicemail line that unemployed workers used to request help and log complaints.
The Department of Labor initially didn’t answer to the claims in the memo and ultimately denied the charges, but the Waterville newspaper corroborated the memo’s contents with Bureau of Unemployment Compensation staff.
Lawmakers earlier this year ordered a probe into the unemployment system’s launch by the Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
In a memo sent to Office of Child and Family Services staff Monday, Kirsten Capeless, the office’s acting director, touted Feeney’s “more than 20 years management experience leading large, complex government programs and organizations through statutory and regulatory policy changes, the pressures of reduced operating budgets and the challenges of organizational change.”
Feeney will be responsible for supporting the office’s acting director, providing day-to-day management and developing an annual operations plan, according to Spencer, the DHHS spokeswoman.
Before joining the Department of Labor, Feeney’s 20-year career in the U.S. Navy included stints as a commanding officer and a program manager for aviation training systems.