A government watchdog agency tasked last year with studying frontline child welfare caseworkers in Maine found most to be overworked and regularly unable to fully meet the needs of families they are supposed to serve.
The 46-page report released Friday morning found more than half of assessment and permanency Office of Child and Family Services caseworkers surveyed — 54 percent — reportedly felt their workload “rarely allows reasonable time to work with families and understand their needs.”
Many reported they “rarely” had time to complete documentation required from each case, while others warned that “child safety is at risk and the quality of work is suffering in the current functioning of the child protective system where workers and the system are overwhelmed.”
The Government Oversight Committee last year asked the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to review work conditions for child welfare caseworkers throughout the state, after the high-profile deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick, allegedly at the hands of their parents or caregivers. The group released a preliminary report in May that faulted the Department of Health and Human Services’ handling of at least one of those cases.
Around that time last year, former Gov. Paul LePage enacted four emergency bills aimed at addressing problems with the child welfare system.
In the OPEGA report released Friday, 58 percent of caseworkers said policy changes, including those bills last year, did not improve their ability to do their work. That number jumped to 69 percent among supervisors.
A disconnect between central office and on-the-ground employees led to the implementation of “top-down” policy changes, which were cumbersome to follow and out of touch, many said.
“Workers told us that all of the changes to practice and policy came down at a time when they were already inundated,” according to the report. “They did not feel understood by management at this point.”
Caseworkers also reported a lack of available services for many rural clients, without which “it can be difficult for families to take the appropriate steps to address the issues identified during the department’s involvement with the families,” according to the report.
Overall, the report reveals that many of the challenges faced by the department last year compounded pre-existing ones, causing an increase in turnover rate. Thirty-three percent of those who spoke with OPEGA said they were actively looking for other jobs due to of unmanageable workloads or because of “emotional burnout” and “stress.”
This latest report is part of a multi-pronged state effort to adequately address shortcomings in DHHS’ Office of Child and Family Services. Earlier this month, the first phase of an audit assessing OCFS revealed similar findings to OPEGA. A national search is currently underway for a director of the department.
Going forward, retention of workers is crucial if the department wants to sustain its current level of work, employees said. Allowing for flexibility among caseworkers’ schedules was one suggestion, as was lowering the ratio of supervisors to caseworkers.
In a letter to OPEGA Director Danielle Fox, newly appointed DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew acknowledged the report’s findings and assured, “we will offer additional ways for frontline workers to engage in policy and organizational changes going forward.”
Lambrew added that she will lead the department to take “as many immediate, evidence-based actions as possible” to ensure child and worker safety and “prevention of abuse and neglect in the first place.”
A public hearing on the OPEGA report is scheduled for Friday, March 8.