Pairs of children's shoes sit on a hardwood floor, illuminated by light from a nearby window.
An outside group hired to look into multiple child fatalities in Maine over the summer found staffing challenges and communication struggles complicated the child welfare system's ability to judge children's safety. Credit: Micky Bedell / BDN

The coronavirus pandemic, ongoing staffing challenges and communication difficulties between families, workers, police and hospitals challenged the ability of Maine’s child welfare system to evaluate children’s safety when four child fatalities occurred this summer, a national organization has found.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services asked Casey Family Programs to examine its child welfare policies earlier this year following the deaths of four children in less than a month, three allegedly by caretakers. Since then, another child has died allegedly at the hands of a parent.

The results of that investigation released Thursday highlight the agency’s ongoing challenges to address child welfare issues despite intense scrutiny and a flurry of policy changes after two young girls were killed by their caregivers in 2017 and 2018.

The report is the first of several expected on the system in the coming months, with more coming from the Legislature’s government watchdog committee. It is likely to spur more systemic calls for change, with child welfare already a dominant issue in the next legislative session and DHHS officials saying they will release their response next week.

The report identified several problems with staffing, including high turnover rates, shortages of available workers due to quarantine protocols and problems with standby and after-hours staffing. Exhaustion, hostility from community partners and feelings of ineffectiveness were contributing to workers leaving the agency, the report found.

It also found a breakdown in communication between the department and other provider agencies, such as mental health or substance abuse counselors, with providers indicating discomfort with the child welfare system and concerns about violating patient confidentiality if asked to share information with the agency.

Caregivers are also reluctant to engage with the child welfare system, the report found. Because a family’s engagement with the agency is voluntary unless there is a court order, frontline staff may eventually close a case after repeatedly asking a caregiver to meet with them with little success, the researchers said.

The investigators came up with seven recommendations for the department, including improving coordination with providers, establishing a protocol for working with hospitals and law enforcement in cases of suspected abuse and supporting parent engagement with the child welfare system.

“It is strongly advocated in the field of safety science that accountability be forward looking, meaning that we do not progress as a system by looking back for blame and punishment, we progress through in-depth and genuine learning,” the report concluded.

Officials within the department said they were reviewing the recommendations closely when considering further reforms.

“The heartbreaking deaths of these children continue to be felt among their families, their communities, our staff, and our state as a whole,” said Todd Landry, director of OFCS.

Caseloads, high turnover and a sense of burnout are issues that have plagued the department for years. The state has taken some steps to address these challenges by hiring more caseworkers, and turnover decreased from 23 percent in 2018 to 15 percent last year. But a January report found that the state would need 42 more workers to handle the current workload.

Advocates within the system, most notably Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi, have also criticized the state recently for relying on certain metrics to measure the system’s improvements — such as permanency placings — rather than ongoing issues like whether caseworkers can successfully identify if a child is safe during initial assessment and in placements. Two members of the ombudsman’s board of directors quit this summer after the state initially resisted giving the ombudsman information on some of the child fatalities.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who introduced legislation earlier this year attempting to create a child welfare agency separate from Maine DHHS, was critical of the report Thursday, saying in a statement that he thought it missed some of the “deeper, longstanding issues” in the department.

“Ensuring coordination between all those involved in a child welfare case, following national best practices, and supporting engagement between OCFS and parents are all things that we currently expect,” he said.