Maine will make several immediate changes to its child welfare program after a report found staffing challenges and communication breakdowns across the system, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday.
The changes come less than a week after the release of a report from Casey Family Programs that found several problems within the Office of Child and Family Services that made it more difficult for officials to evaluate children’s safety.
The agency asked Casey to launch the probe earlier this year following the deaths of four children in less than a month in the state beginning on June 1, three allegedly by caretakers. Since then, another child has died allegedly at the hands of a parent.
The newly announced policies closely follow many of the seven recommendations for the department in that report, though the announcement noted that some of the actions built upon previous policies, including those implemented immediately after the four child deaths in June.
Immediate actions the department will take include improving coordination with behavioral health 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.
The report noted that Maine child welfare workers often had to rely on incomplete information in cases involving children in hospitals. Law enforcement convey the limited information they have to case workers, but hospitals are often reluctant to provide more details to create a fuller picture out of the concern for violating patient privacy laws.
DHHS will also take another look at arrangements for after-hours and standby staffing, building upon changes made after a workgroup convened earlier this year. Those changes included increasing staffing on weekends and holidays, more flexibility in the length of shifts and more clearly defining the roles of caseworkers and supervisors.
The Casey Family Program report noted that caseworkers assigned to standby shifts outside of regular business hours were often completing tasks, such as safety assessments, that were not part of their regular responsibilities and expertise. The report also said that the work added to these employees’ already full caseloads.
“There is no higher priority than keeping Maine children safe,” said Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services within DHHS. “Our child welfare staff are devoted to this responsibility and we continue to do all we can to support them in their critical work, including incorporating Casey’s science-based recommendations into our ongoing improvements.”
The Casey report identified several problems with staffing, including high turnover rates and shortages of available workers due to quarantine protocols in addition to the 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.
The report was the first of several expected on the system in the coming months, with more anticipated from the Legislature’s government watchdog committee. Child welfare is also already shaping up to be a dominant issue for debate during the upcoming legislative session in Augusta.