It will take more than additional money and staff to fully improve Maine’s child welfare system, but allocating more state funds to hiring additional people is an important step in that needed overhaul.
So, while we applaud Gov. Janet Mills for dedicating an additional $2.8 million to the state budget to hire more personnel for the Office of Child and Family Services, we, like the administration, understand that much more needs to be done to ensure the safety and well-being of Maine children.
“Our proposal to hire 62 new staff in the Office of Child and Family Services is an interim investment in Maine’s child welfare system as we complete a full assessment,” Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News. “Improving caseloads, background checks, and the intake process for potential cases is part of a large set of changes needed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Maine’s children, and DHHS under the Mills Administration is committed to pursuing them.”
The money, which is part of the governor’s changes to the budget for the next two years, will be used to hire 43 caseworkers, six background check unit staff and 13 positions in intake, which handles calls and reports of suspected abuse or neglect.
This is in addition to new staff that has been hired by the Department of Health and Human Services in recent months. If the Legislature approves Mills’ latest proposal, the office’s staff will have grown by nearly a third in less than a year.
The changes come about a year after two young girls died from alleged abuse in their homes. Both former Gov. Paul LePage and Mills took steps to reform the state’s child welfare system to avoid such tragedies in the future.
Yet, front-line child welfare workers say they are “drowning.” Caseworkers say their workload is unmanageable and voluminous paperwork takes time away from their most important work — visiting families and children.
“We are drowning. Everyone in this office is drowning right now,” a caseworker, who requested anonymity to avoid professional reprisals, told the Bangor Daily News this week.
The three caseworkers who spoke to the BDN made it clear that it will take more than new coworkers to improve their jobs and the child welfare system. They called for better training and more responsive management.
Their concerns were echoed by a preliminary report from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which began a review during the LePage administration, and by the state’s Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi.
Hiring more case workers and supervisors will help spread the growing workload, Alberi said. But, she stressed, it is inherently very difficult to assess whether children are safe, which must be the standard for all child welfare decisions.
This safety assessment is multifaceted and ongoing at all points in the child welfare process, which includes decisions about whether children should be removed from their home or returned there. That expertise comes with time and experience, so it is critical that seasoned caseworkers and managers have the time, skills and support to work with newer employees.
Alberi also emphasized the need for consistent standards. Changing standards quickly — which is a natural reaction after a child’s death — can do more harm than good. For this reason, Alberi says she supports the Mills administration’s deliberative approach to improving the state’s child welfare services.
As increasing numbers of children and families interact with the state’s child welfare services, the system must be staffed to meet this growing demand. At the same time, these employees must have the time, training and supervisor support to make the difficult decisions that aim to keep Maine child safe from abuse and neglect.
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