In the 15 or so months since two Maine children died from abuse in their homes despite having had repeated contact with child welfare caseworkers, state leaders have vowed to reform the beleaguered system.
But deployment of those reforms, gleaned from two separate investigations into the department — 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 condition of anonymity to avoid professional reprisals said, if anything, aspects of their job are getting worse. Job requirements are “literally not achievable,” caseload expectations and sizes remain “unmanageable,” and paperwork continues to bog down productivity, while assessment numbers continue to climb.
“We are drowning. Everyone in this office is drowning right now,” said 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 Services Director Todd Landry, who just finished his second week on the job, is assembling a team to prioritize a list of 20 reforms, which were first identified at the beginning of this year and have been pared from a list of about 100. He said in early May of his office 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.”
But what Landry sees as optimism others, including these caseworkers, warily view as out-of-touch hopefulness.
An Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability report in February that polled caseworkers across Maine found sagging morale, high turnover rates, and workloads so heavy, they prevented many caseworkers from meeting the demands of their jobs.
Many of those 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 said. She was recently reprimanded for failing to properly fill out case documentation in a timely manner, and no support was given to help her avoid the same issue in the future, she said.
Another caseworker, wanting to avoid a similar fate and because overtime is hard to come by, recently devoted eight hours of a weekend, without pay, to complete her outstanding paperwork.
Because there’s often not enough time to complete every job requirement, spending more time on paperwork invariably means fewer in-person visits, they said. Duplicative case documentation requirements, which all three said take up most of their time, have not changed and continue to be a burden, though reducing redundancies is on the department’s list 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 said.
When the Government Oversight Committee was first presented with data backing up these caseworkers’ experiences, they tasked Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew with presenting an ongoing progress report to show 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, told Lambrew. “It seems like we’ve been talking about this for quite a while now.”
Meanwhile, assessments by caseworkers into potentially at-risk families have remained high. After nearly doubling between 2017 and 2018 — during which time independent investigators found a “noted lack of urgency” on the part of caseworkers handling those assessments — the rate has continued to rise in 2019, peaking at more than 1,000 in February — a monthly figure surpassed only twice in the past two years.
During that same two-year period, at least 22 children died despite the child protective services system receiving concerns about abuse or neglect involving their families.
Employed for at least five years each as caseworkers — comparably longer than most — all three said this week that the tonal differences under Democratic Gov. Janet Mills gives them “greater hope for a shift,” but the heightened focus on department overhaul has not resulted in any detectable changes. Their skepticism is compounded by the changes instituted under former Gov. Paul LePage last year, many of which were later deemed not ultimately helpful.
“We’re having more difficult cases, and the burden is really falling on the people who are already overwhelmed,” one said.
“I don’t feel like this message is getting across,” another added.
Lambrew on Friday morning told lawmakers that the department is “aggressively assessing” changes most needed to “support these climbing caseloads.” Since October, for example, the department has hired more than 100 staff, including more than 80 caseworkers.
But rising numbers of caseloads and assessments have offset a lot of the benefits achieved by hiring more staff.
Landry is proceeding cautiously, understanding that “policy swings” during the past year have led to “some real confusion” and “unintended consequences” for staff. That’s why he’s beginning his job without new goals but is more intent on pushing forward pre-existing ones, saying he doesn’t want 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 said.
A focus on reform
Landry relocated to Maine late last month from Fort Worth, Texas, where he served as the chief executive officer for a nonprofit that provides counseling and educational training for children and families.
From 2007 to 2009, Landry was director of Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services. During that time, he managed fallout from the state’s newly enacted Safe Haven Law, which at first allowed parents to surrender children of any age to state custody without prosecution. Instead of overburdened parents giving up their infants, children older than 10 and as old as 17 were dropped off at hospitals. Legislators quickly held an emergency special session to amend the law as applicable to infants only.
Like Lambrew, who was hired by Mills in January, Landry has assured greater department transparency for both staff and the public. During the next few months, for example, the department plans to unveil user-friendly dashboards for employees and eventually on its website to make data tracking easier. Landry also wants staff to be more communicative with potential foster and adoptive parents, which includes refining the training required by the state.
He also has begun to streamline the process for licensing new foster parents. At the end of March, Maine had 1,464 licensed foster families and 1,991 children in state custody, according to department data.
Landry also said he is “absolutely committed” to broadening resources quickly to lessen the amount of time caseworkers spend in hospitals and hotel rooms with minors until a safe placement is found — a problematic aspect of the job experienced by many caseworkers that was identified in the February OPEGA report.
Common ground with lawmakers?
Though rebuilding trust with all parties is a priority, Landry hasn’t shed much light on how he plans to coordinate with lawmakers eager to see reforms, some of whom have already passed bills to that end. Lambrew has begun weighing in on some, including recently opposing a bill from Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, to form an ad hoc investigatory commission to overhaul the system. Lambrew said such a commission would 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 would bulk up the Child Welfare Ombudsman program — a third-party watchdog with access to all of DHHS’ otherwise confidential records. The nonpartisan office, often used to highlight department shortcomings and recommend better practices, is currently staffed with only one full-time employee.
Lawmakers have also proposed measures to again emphasize family reunification, hoping to reverse a law passed last year under LePage after Chick’s grandfather’s fiancee and Kennedy’s parents were charged with their murders. But concerns about reunification remain in the wake of Alberi’s 2018 finding that there were “significant issues” with department decision makers who either too quickly reunited children with at-risk families or kept them in state custody longer than they needed to be.
On Thursday, the House and Senate voted unanimously in favor of a bill requiring DHHS staff, including Landry, to review child welfare caseload standards, with input from caseworkers and the consultant currently auditing department practices, and come up with recommended changes. If signed by Mills, it will go into effect immediately.
The key for building an action plan for the remaining 20 goals will require “working with urgency, but not haste,” Landry said.
But Alberi, also recognizing there has been little significant change to help caseworkers, said she’s worried “we’ve gotten away from the central issue that brought us here.”
At all times, she said, “the focus should be on whether or not children are safe,” and that starts by giving caseworkers the tools they need in order to make those calls. The reality is that, in the year 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.”