Gov. Janet Mills and the Maine Legislature have made significant investments in rebuilding the state’s child welfare system. In addition to hiring additional personnel, the Department of Health and Human Services and its Office of Child and Family Services are in the midst of significant changes in policies and practices to better care for Maine children, especially those at risk for abuse and neglect.
Still, the system remains short staffed and caseworkers continue to feel overwhelmed.
It sounds trite to say such significant rebuilding and change takes time, but it does. It takes time to rebuild a system that was largely neglected and underfunded by the previous administration. That rebuildling started with hiring a commissioner and others with expertise in health and human services.
That does not mean that the department can wait — nor is it waiting — for larger, structural reforms to be made before addressing short-term problems with quicker solutions.
“When I joined Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services in April 2019, our child welfare staff shared their concerns about unmanageable workloads and a lack of support. But they also shared their commitment and optimism for a system that better serves Maine children and families,” Todd Landry, director of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child and Family Services, wrote in a recent column in the Bangor Daily News.
The office and its policies have been the subject of intense and deserved scrutiny, from lawmakers, review committees and the public, after the deaths of Marissa Kennedy in February 2018 and Kendall Chick in December 2017. Both girls and their caregivers had been involved with DHHS. In Kennedy’s case, the state received 25 reports about her family.
“Partnering with staff, as well as stakeholders, the Legislature, the Child Welfare Ombudsman and regional and national experts, the office has developed a vision for the future of child welfare in Maine and strategies to move toward that vision. We’ve spent the last year focused on solutions that can be accomplished swiftly and structural reforms that require patience.”
Already, the Mills administration has grown the staff of the Office of Child and Family Services by nearly a third. The governor’s supplemental budget proposal calls for an additional 20 staff members.
At the same time, the number of children in the department’s care has risen by 35 percent over two years. Landry attributes the rise to the ongoing opioid crisis and increased awareness of child welfare.
The crush of this demand has left some of the office’s employees feeling hopeless.
One caseworker told the BDN that she and her colleagues feel as though they have two choices: work around the clock and not put in for the extra time, or not get their work done, with children’s lives on the line.
Clearly, this is unsustainable, which the department understands. That’s why the department is also upgrading the state’s child welfare computer system, has deployed a better intake system, is reviewing and revising policies for the care and placement of children at risk for abuse and neglect, and pursuing federal funding for increased attention on prevention strategies to keep families out of the state’s system.
“I would say it will take several years to turn this around. We had eight years of just a starving beast,” Pamela Day of Portland, a former director of child welfare services and standards for the Child Welfare League of America, told the BDN. “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 Department of Health and Human Services has set the right priorities to end that tailspin. With additional funding — and sustained scrutiny — from lawmakers, the work to turn around Maine’s child welfare system must continue as expeditiously as possible.