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Child development workers report unwieldy caseloads, toxic culture as they push to oust director

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Child development workers report unwieldy caseloads, toxic culture as they push to oust director

Dec 07, 2023 | 4:46 am ET
By Emma Davis
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Child development workers report unwieldy caseloads, toxic culture as they push to oust director
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Sarah Girard, an IEP team administrator for CDS Reach in Portland, said she has worked with several children who have had to wait 12 to 18 months for services. (Getty Images)

When Colleen Brown writes Individualized Education Programs for children who need special education, she said it is as if she is writing a check she knows is going to bounce. 

Brown began working at Child Development Services (CDS) seven years ago. Currently, she is an IEP administrator but also has a small caseload because her site in Machias does not have a designated case manager. She does not anticipate this changing anytime soon. She’s tried to recruit new employees to no avail. Now, she’s about ready to leave herself. 

“I have totally been bled of my passion for a career that I worked so hard for,” Brown said. 

Complaints of unmanageable caseloads and a toxic work environment within CDS abound as the majority of its employees are actively pushing to oust their director. These complaints are not new but rather the culmination of decades of dissatisfaction with inadequate staffing, resources and comparably poor performance in helping young children with disabilities compared to other states.

Last session, the legislature tasked the Department of Education, which operates CDS, to report on the services the agency provides to children aged three to six, specifically its partnerships with providers, funding models and staffing, among other factors. This report, due February 15, is intended to be used as a foundation to guide further action on CDS after other proposals to restructure special education services for children in the state failed. 

Meanwhile, any immediate remedies for children currently not receiving adequate services, and the employees strapped to provide them, remain unclear. 

A proposal to dissolve CDS

A majority of the state workers employed by CDS took a vote of no confidence last month in the agency’s director, Roberta Lucas. The employees, represented by Maine Service Employees Association, called on DOE Commissioner Pender Makin to replace Lucas, citing a toxic work environment, high turnover, unmanageable caseloads, lack of trust and alleged nepotism in hiring decisions.

Lucas did not respond to Maine Morning Star’s requests for comment about the accusations raised by the union and those made by sources throughout this story. A DOE spokesperson told Maine Morning Star that the department is unable to comment on the accusations as they are being handled as an ongoing human resources matter.

On Tuesday, Makin shared a progress update on the report currently underway at DOE with the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, explaining that staff continue to review past reports and community feedback but not disclosing any findings. When asked about the vote of no confidence and recent allegations from staff, Makin said, “I’m unable to speak about what is being dealt with as a personnel issue.” 

Maine is one of the only states where school districts don’t provide special education services to children once they turn three years old. Instead this falls under the DOE, specifically CDS, a quasi-governmental agency that provides special education services for children under five through a network of regional sites. 

CDS currently administers two parts of the requirements under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, services for children from birth to two years old (known as Part C) and those for children three to five years old (Part B). Dating back to 2017, the legislature has considered several proposals from the DOE to dissolve CDS and have the state’s public schools take over Part B and DOE take over Part C. 

Amid these proposals, the legislature hired a public consulting group to conduct a review of the suggested changes. The advisory committee tasked with reviewing the report concluded “that doing nothing is not an option” but did not reach consensus as to the best path forward in regards to transferring Part B to public schools. 

The legislature has so far declined to dissolve CDS, but MSEA claims Lucas has supported doing so, another reason members cited in explaining their vote of no confidence. Maine Morning Star could not independently confirm Lucas’ stance.  

Early intervention service coordinator Laurie Brown (no relation to Colleen Brown) has worked for CDS since 2010 and said she harbors a growing concern in the back of her mind: Is my job safe?

“Knowing that the person at the helm is staring right into the iceberg is definitely not helpful,” Laurie Brown said of Lucas’ support for dissolving the agency. 

In March of last year, Laurie Brown provided testimony to the legislature on DOE’s proposal, reiterating many concerns she still has. 

“Morale is low, communication between management and workers is strained to non-existent,” she said then, adding that if CDS were fully funded “we would not have waiting lists for those services designed to reroute brain practices for better function. A child in Jackman, a child in Cherryfield and a child in Saco would have access to similar services. And the wage gap for workers in the same job with level experience and credentials would not exist, site to site.”

It has long been known that CDS is not working as intended. A DOE spokesperson said the department has longstanding concerns about the agency and is hopeful to partner with legislators on solutions. Makin also stated as much during the education committee meeting on Tuesday.

“There have been persistent and complicated challenges spanning decades related to the service provision and the organizational structure that we work through with CDS,” Makin said.

Given this common understanding, Rep. Kelly Murphy (D-Scarborough) asked about immediate remedies for children currently not receiving adequate services. “I’m glad that the report is being done and there’s work being done to change it systemically, but for right now, is there anything that’s happening?” Murphy asked Makin. 

“I don’t have those specifics on what the remedies would be, but there are remedies,” Makin responded. “I don’t think that they are immediate, unfortunately, and I think everything that is humanly possible is being done to make sure that all students are served.” 

The breakdown between identification and services

Maine identifies more children with disabilities in kindergarten than most other states, a point of agreement between legislators and Makin on Tuesday. However, the two parties disagreed about what that data point signifies. 

While Makin viewed the high rates of identification as a sign that the state is doing well at discerning students who need special education, Rep. Rebecca Millet (D-Cape Elizabeth) drew a different conclusion. “If we’re under-identifying earlier, that would therefore cause a higher identification at kindergarten and first [grade] because these kiddos haven’t been receiving services,” Millet said. 

Several constituents of Rep. James Libby (R-Cumberland) told him this occurred with their children. 

“I agree that once they hit the schools we’re identifying them,” Libby said. “It’s in that transition that I’m getting reports from my districts that those meetings are not going well.”

Once students are identified, many are not able to get the services their evaluations show they need because of a lack of staff and providers willing to contract with CDS.

Sarah Girard, an IEP team administrator for CDS Reach in Portland, said she has worked with several children who have had to wait 12 to 18 months for services. “I think the kids are being identified in early intervention,” Girard said. “I think we don’t have the providers to service them.” 

Maine Morning Star reported on these service delays earlier this fall, when educators and parents reported waiting for similar timeframes for their students and children to receive services through CDS.

Families of young children say state failing to provide special education support

And these delays result in more down the line. Girard explained that when students do not receive the services their IEPs require, they are often entitled to compensatory services to make up for any educational losses. 

“We’re writing for services we didn’t have to begin with and now they have all these extra hours or sessions available to them that we still don’t have people to provide them,” Girard said.

This backlog also then takes away from children they write IEPs for in the future. “It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.

Because of insufficient staffing at CDS, some public school leaders have taken it upon themselves to find alternatives, including Sue Carter, principal of Calais Elementary School located near the Canadian border. 

CDS has not been able to provide her school with the education technicians needed to support students with special needs, she said. 

Currently, there are about seven non-verbal students in kindergarten and pre-K at Calais. Carter has been hiring education technicians herself and trying to get reimbursed from CDS to ensure their needs are met, she said. The closest option these students have for a specialized education is in Machias, about an hour away. 

“CDS just doesn’t have the resources,” Carter said. “I don’t know that it’s fixable.” 

Carter is supportive of districts taking over the responsibility to provide special education services to younger children, although she questioned whether the funding that would presumably come with it would be adequate or if similar issues would simply transfer to the public school system. 

Child development workers report unwieldy caseloads, toxic culture as they push to oust director
Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin gave an update to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on the agency’s ongoing report into services provided by Child Development Services. (Emma Davis/Maine Morning Star)

The strain on staff 

Earlier in her career, Girard worked as a case manager with CDS but quit her job because she said she’d become burnt out with a caseload of about 175 children. “I was feeling like a failure every day,” she recalled, “because I couldn’t put quality into my work.” 

She returned to CDS in 2018 because of changes promised within the agency, notably wage increases. Laurie Brown at CDS in York also spoke to that shift years ago. 

“I think that CDS has always had issues with things like state funding for preschool services and preschool slots,” she said, also noting that under former Gov. Paul LePage there were pay freezes and closures of some regional sites. “But just prior to the pandemic, we had gone through a whole process of advocating through the legislature and increasing our funding for recruitment and retention.”

Things were looking up, she said. Then, the pandemic hit and everything shut down. When services began to reopen, they did so at a fraction of the capacity, she explained, “so it just backlogged things again and again and again.” 

We have children who are not receiving services who have been on a waitlist for longer than a year, and when we miss this critical development period for these kiddos, we pay the price in the future.

– Rep. Rebecca Millett (D-Cape Elizabeth)

Girard is an IEP administrator now but she works with a team of case managers who she said have caseloads similar to what she was carrying before she burnt out from the work. With these high numbers, scheduling regular meetings for children on top of paperwork and a lack of providers to ultimately refer them to has left her feeling like she is back where she started. 

“It’s just a snowball effect of everything,” Girard said.

Both Girard and Laurie Brown said the pandemic played a role in straining the already understaffed agency, but so did the leadership change around that time. 

CDS employees, public school leaders, legislators and Makin, the current head of DOE, all noted that the issues within CDS date back to before Lucas assumed control of the department in October 2020. However, employees have noted a breakdown in communication from management since the leadership change.

In recent weeks, employees have pointed to a lack of clear communication in supposedly revoking overtime. 

In emails obtained by Maine Morning Star sent from CDS site directors to employees in late October, directors cut down on eligible overtime until eventually no more overtime hours were allowed to be approved, which the directors stated was a decision that came from “the state level.” 

More recently, several employees said they heard of an apparent hiring freeze from site directors, in this case by word of mouth in meetings. Laurie Brown questioned this decision given the number of open positions at CDS sites across the state. “I’m struggling to find the logic with things coming from above,” she said.

According to the DOE, 63 positions remain open within CDS and the department is seeking applicants. When asked about reported hiring and overtime freezes, a DOE spokesperson told Maine Morning Star, “The agency is actively hiring for positions that have direct contact with children.”

Millet, the representative for Cape Elizabeth, asked Makin during the education committee meeting on Tuesday to provide information about the reported hiring freeze and more immediate concerns with working conditions at CDS, although Millet told Maine Morning Star after the meeting that she wasn’t certain the committee will receive that information.

What happens next?

With months before the legislature is set to receive an official DOE report on CDS, several employees said they are unsure whether they can keep working under current conditions.  

“This is really where my heart and my passion is for these kiddos and families with special needs at the early intervention,” Girard said. “There’s nothing like watching a kid’s light bulb go off when they learn a skill or you hear a family or a teacher sharing these things.”

But Girard and others do not currently have confidence in being able to fulfill IEPs. 

“Something has to change,” Girard said. “The system is broken.”

Girard, Laurie Brown and Colleen Brown each said they were glad to see the legislative attention on CDS ahead of the official report coming down from DOE, although it is unclear if much change will come before then. 

Anticipating future action following the report findings, Rep. Jan Dodge (D-Belfast) said during the committee meeting, “I hope that the report will also include the specifics that have already been addressed that were recommended in some of these past reports so that we’re not just recycling.” 

Millet is also cautiously optimistic. “I really hope we are at a turning point,” Millet told Maine Morning Star.

“We have children who are not receiving services who have been on a waitlist for longer than a year,” Millet said, “and when we miss this critical development period for these kiddos, we pay the price in the future.”

Editor’s note: Child Development Services employees spoke with Maine Morning Star in their capacity as private citizens. Their views do not reflect their employer or union.