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Maine child welfare system requires less bureaucracy, more listening, MSEA head says

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Maine child welfare system requires less bureaucracy, more listening, MSEA head says

Dec 08, 2023 | 11:49 am ET
By AnnMarie Hilton
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Maine child welfare system requires less bureaucracy, more listening, MSEA head says
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Addressing the oversight committee Wednesday, DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said Jaden and every other child who died under the care of the state lost their chance at a future.  “We mourn their loss,” she said. “I mourn their loss. And I ask myself and lose sleep over the question, ‘Could each child have survived if something different had been done in the child welfare system?’” (Getty Images)

Jaden Harding was just six weeks old when he died, but his family’s involvement with the child welfare system in Maine spanned years before he was even conceived. 

The infant’s death prompted a 65-page report on what went wrong and reignited a years-long discussion around the systemic failures in Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) and the immense burden being placed on caseworkers who are understaffed and overworked. 

Caseworkers get little room to catch their breath in a physically and emotionally demanding job, dozens of vacancies go unfilled and convoluted policies lead to “unsound safety decisions,” according to testimonies and reports shared with the Government Oversight Committee over the last month. And after a recent report showed the agency’s inability to protect children from repeated abuse and neglect, Todd Landry resigned from his role as director of OCFS.

For the past two years under Landry’s watch, the agency knew it didn’t have enough caseworkers to appropriately address each report of abuse or neglect, according to the 2022 Child Welfare Annual Report. OCFS got permission to add 15 more workers, but that didn’t fix everything given the turmoil staff still endure today. 

State Sen. Jeff Timberlake (R-Androscoggin) said he’s “greatly concerned” that the agency is still facing these issues.

“I’m concerned because some of us saw this coming for a long time,” he said at a committee meeting Wednesday. 

Double the recommended caseload

Dean Staffieri worked for OCFS for almost three decades before he left to work in vocational rehabilitation services. 

While Staffieri looks back fondly on his time in the child welfare field — “It was a place that I was always really proud to work at” —in his present role as president of the Maine Service Employees Association-SEIU Local 1989 he frequently hears cries for help from current employees. 

The work is hard because “you’re really up to your ears in the lives of families and children,” and those lives depend on the decisions you make, Staffieri said. But accounts of current work conditions from staff and reports are “incredibly painful,” he said.

In early November, caseworkers from OCFS testified before the oversight committee, sharing details of what their days look like on the job. 

Maureen Cote, who has worked there since 2018, shared her experience of long hours, insufficient pay and a caseload double the recommended amount. Other testimonies spoke of missed breaks, mandatory overtime and a lack of continuity due to continual changes to policies and procedures. 

Cote began her testimony by clarifying that she wasn’t there as a “disgruntled employee,” but out of “concern for children and families.”

Workdays often don’t end at 5 p.m. because on top of her 20 or so cases, she said caseworkers often spend nights at hospitals and hotels to supervise children. Those situations can also pose dangers to their physical safety since many children they work with have behavioral issues from being abused or neglected. 

Cote said she feels supported by supervisors in her specific office, but even so, she’s had to take a mental health leave from the job, as have many of her colleagues. 

“I have always said this will be my career for life because I feel so strongly about the work and wanting to change the community’s perspective of the work we do, but I now worry that I’ll have to leave this position for my own emotional safety and wellbeing,” she told the committee. 

A part-time employee who came back to OCFS after retiring said she has fewer cases than the full-time caseworkers, but she still has more than the recommended amount.

Like many state departments, OCFS has been plagued by unfilled positions. In the latest report, there were more than 30 unfilled caseworker positions out of about 400 that were needed in 2021, which was actually an improvement from the more than 40 openings reported the year before. 

Today’s concerns echo what workers experienced in 2018 that prompted MSEA to put forth 10 recommendations to make work conditions more manageable. The list included reducing caseloads to no more than 12, ending forced overtime and ensuring the safety of staff in the field.

While the department did act on some recommendations, they were implemented in a way that created more stress for caseworkers and other employees of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which houses OCFS, said Tom Farkas, communications and training coordinator for MSEA.

Looking for a new OCFS director

Addressing the oversight committee Wednesday, DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said Jaden and every other child who died under the care of the state lost their chance at a future. 

“We mourn their loss,” she said. “I mourn their loss. And I ask myself and lose sleep over the question, ‘Could each child have survived if something different had been done in the child welfare system?’”

The number of referrals to the system has been growing as families in Maine face an epidemic of substance use disorders and increased economic instability, Lambrew said, so these problems aren’t going to alleviate on their own. As of September, more than 2,500 children were in state custody, up from more than 1,700 five years ago, according to data on the DHHS website.

And with turnover in OCFS leadership, Lambrew said DHHS is conducting a national search for a new director to guide Maine’s child welfare system to a new era of improved culture and protecting children. 

“Any change in leadership offers an opportunity for a reset,” Lambrew said. 

She added that the department hopes to find someone who not only meets the qualifications for being an effective director, but also is empathetic, a strong communicator, a good listener and capable of reviving faith from caseworkers and the public in Maine’s child protective systems.

Another possible avenue for reparation brought up during the committee meeting is taking OCFS out of DHHS.

In early 2021, Sen. Bill Diamond (D-Windham) proposed a bill to remove the Office of Child and Family Services from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. 

Landry, who was director at the time, opposed the idea, writing in a letter that “the costs and drawbacks outweigh any benefits that may be derived.” But more than two years later and after Landry’s resignation, leadership from DHHS has changed its tune. 

“We’re willing to reconsider that position,” said Lambrew at a Government Oversight Committee meeting Wednesday.

“It’s not an immediate solution,” she added. “It’s usually not a cost-free solution to create a new department, but if that cost compared to other ways you can invest money is going to help kids and families in Maine be safer and be better, we’ll support it.”

Solution may be simpler than it seems

Although the situation seems “miserable,” Staffieri said he doesn’t think the problem is as difficult to fix as it may seem. 

Moving OCFS out of DHHS isn’t at the top of his priority list, though. 

“If you thought that moving chairs around the Titanic when it was sinking would be helpful, then I would concur with the idea that moving it out of DHHS makes sense,” he said. 

Really he sees that as a “window-dressing or a way in which the bureaucratic element of the department can say we did something.”

Instead, he’d like to see leadership with a vision and employees feel like they are heard. 

Referring to the rapid changes in policies and procedures described in employee testimony, Staffieri said those systems need to be simplified. If people don’t feel competent or as though they can master the job, they aren’t going to want to stay, he said.

“Probably 99% of the real front line staff have this calling to do the work and they are extraordinarily committed to it,” he said. “If you start there and really listen to what they’re recommending, I think that’s going to be a great way to begin to fix things.”