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Maine struggles with reunifying families in the child welfare system. Here’s why.

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Maine struggles with reunifying families in the child welfare system. Here’s why.

Feb 23, 2024 | 1:40 pm ET
By AnnMarie Hilton
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Maine struggles with reunifying families in the child welfare system. Here’s why.
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Parents have the legal right to raise their children, but the state intervenes if a child is not safe. (Getty Images)

Child welfare caseworkers in Maine have made it clear that their work loads are too demanding, they don’t have enough support and there are too many staff vacancies. 

The impact of those shortcomings was made apparent in a recent review of the process the Office of Child and Family Services has for reunifying parents and children, an internal government watchdog reported on Friday. The results of that review were shared with the Government Oversight Committee, which has been investigating the challenges and failings of the agency in recent months.

Parents have the legal right to raise their children, but the state intervenes if a child is not safe. The state says it tries to prevent removing a child from their family, but sometimes it is necessary to protect from abuse or neglect. In those cases, the state has to make efforts to reunify the family, except for in certain circumstances, explained Peter Schleck, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, a legislative office that provides independent oversight of state government.

More than 2,500 children, or roughly 1% of Maine’s child population, were in state custody at the end of last year, Schleck said Friday morning. To better understand how well the state’s reunification process is working, the accountability office reviewed 400 foster care cases between April 2017 and March 2023. Of those reviewed, nearly six in 10 cases — or 235 — did not meet federal standards. 

The review identified four main challenges in meeting the appropriate standards for reunification, which Schleck explained to the committee.

Challenge one: Caseworker practices

The watchdog found that caseworkers are struggling in two areas: Assessing substance use among parents and engaging families in case planning. 

When it comes to substance use assessment, there can be delays in results, difficulty interpreting results, trouble determining whether a parent is abusing prescriptions and more, Schleck said.

Caseworkers also falter in having sufficient conversations with parents about goals, services and other components of case planning. The review also found that parents don’t feel heard.

Both of these problems can be attributed, at least in part, to insufficient training or experience, Schleck explained.

Challenge two: High workloads

Caseworkers told the accountability office that high workloads are adversely affecting the thoroughness of their work. The review attributes the workloads to three factors: unfilled positions, insufficient support staff and a lack of certain resources. 

As of the end of January, 18% of permanency caseworker positions were unfilled. However, that gap in staffing is worse in some parts of the state than others. For instance, the Ellsworth-Machias region as well as Lewiston are the hardest hit each with about four in 10 positions unfilled. The Biddeford-Sanford area is close behind with nearly three in 10 positions open. 

However, both Portland and the Caribou-Houlton area don’t have any openings. 

And that’s just caseworkers. There is also a lack of aides and other assistant positions who could do tasks like scanning documents or faxing referrals so that caseworkers can focus on social work, Schleck said. 

Challenge three: Waitlists for support services

Part of reunification is determining what supports parents need and then getting them access to those services. 

Two of the greatest areas of need, mental health and substance use disorder, often have extensive wait times to access treatment services, which can delay family reunification. 

Challenge four: The legal system

Since parents have the right to raise their child under the U.S. Constitution, the legal system is a key part of the child welfare process — including determining whether a child is reunified with their parents. 

Although the state must attempt to reunify the family, in some cases that’s not possible. With some exceptions, the state seeks termination of parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months, Schleck explained. 

A backlog of cases, not enough attorneys to take on parents’ cases, and the amount of time it takes caseworkers to write petitions to revoke a parent’s rights (on top of their high workloads) can slow the process of a case moving through the legal system. Staff also reported that judges can be reluctant to sign a petition if a parent hasn’t been given proper support services — which Schleck reiterated can be hard to access for mental health and substance use.