Two years after the high-profile deaths of two Maine girls, the state’s child welfare system still appears to be overwhelmed. While those on the ground see some encouraging signs, three caseworkers and one manager said they continue to experience a key problem that has plagued the system in recent years: too much work for the number of staff.
One caseworker, who spoke anonymously because she feared losing her job, put it bluntly. “We are drowning, still,” she said.
Experts, meanwhile, cautioned that it takes several years to turn around a complicated system and train dozens of new workers, and that improvements to other programs that help children and families are key to relieving pressure on the Office of Child and Family Services, which oversees investigations into reports of child abuse and neglect.
“I would say it will take several years to turn this around. We had eight years of just a starving beast,” said Pamela Day of Portland, a former director of child welfare services and standards for the Child Welfare League of America who is familiar with Maine’s system. “What happened over time was, not only were there fewer and fewer workers to really try to manage the cases but so many fewer resources to provide to these families, that I think it all just tailspinned down.”
The state hired 33 caseworkers this fall, increasing the workforce by 10 percent over the previous December. But many have only finished their training recently, and the state is still short 40 caseworkers, according to the results of a state “workload analytic tool” released Jan. 31. The tool determines staffing needs based on the volume of cases, the time required for various components of cases, caseworker tenure and travel.
“We would need additional caseworkers, additional staff to handle the amount of workload that we currently have with the number of calls, assessments and children in care. That’s clearly what the analytic tool shows,” said Todd Landry, the director of the Office of Child and Family Services. The estimated need for 40 more caseworkers, which would bring the total statewide to 386, is not a budget proposal, he said.
Gov. Janet Mills’ supplemental budget, which needs legislative approval, would add half that number of positions, 20 caseworkers.
If the state isn’t going to heed its reports, it shouldn’t produce them, one caseworker said. At the same time, three caseworkers, who all spoke anonymously, expressed distrust of the tool, saying they believe an algorithm can’t capture all the nuances and complexities of their jobs and is therefore undercounting the need for workers.
Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.
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