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New director of Maine’s child welfare system talks improvements, priorities

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New director of Maine’s child welfare system talks improvements, priorities

Feb 21, 2024 | 10:30 am ET
By AnnMarie Hilton
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New director of Maine’s child welfare system talks improvements, priorities
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Director of the Office of Child and Family Services Bobbi Johnson updated the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee at a meeting Tuesday afternoon about steps she’s already taken to improve an agency that’s been under scrutiny of late

Johnson became director just over a month ago at a time when OCFS has been under investigation by the Government Oversight Committee for failures to keep children safe and challenging conditions for caseworkers. 

“The theme of my priorities and the strategies we are undertaking is people,” Johnson said, adding that “passionate individuals who have dedicated their lives” to this work are the organization’s greatest strength. 

She added, “I want to celebrate their commitment and make our child welfare system one they’re proud to be part of and that results in the best possible outcomes for children and families.”

This update comes less than 24 hours after the Bangor Police Department said it is investigating the death of a child who showed up at the hospital over the weekend with life threatening injuries, as reported by Bangor Daily News. Johnson told the committee it was an ongoing investigation, so she couldn’t comment on it. 

In her update, Johnson outlined two priorities for her vision for the office. The first is addressing staff needs by lessening “unmanageable workloads” and providing sufficient opportunities for them to be heard by leadership. 

Since Johnson took her role at the helm of OCFS, she has been visiting each of the eight child welfare districts throughout the state. 

She’s been to six so far, with plans to visit Aroostook County on Wednesday and Augusta next week. So far, she said she’s received a positive response from staff. 

Visiting each district is one way Johnson is trying to address the fact that caseworkers say they don’t feel heard or connected to leadership. She’s also created new communication pathways such as a regular newsletter from the leadership team. 

She also has met or plans to meet with family engagement specialists and consultants, the youth advisory team, the children’s behavioral health team and resource parents. 

“My second priority is seizing every opportunity to gain knowledge from those with lived experience in our system,” she said. 

Johnson said she has also made several commitments to her staff, including gathering data that measures the agency’s achievements and progress. And she committed to having accountability at all levels, which she defines as coaching and support with discipline only after other options were unsuccessful. 

Tangible changes at OCFS

Because of staff feedback, Johnson said OCFS will hire a dedicated staff member to coordinate hotel and hospital stays for children in state custody, which caseworkers have previously said can require them to work late nights and long hours on top of higher than recommended caseloads in a lot of instances. 

The agency is also expanding the pool of volunteers (who are paid an hourly stipend) in each district who can stay with children at those locations and reimbursing them for mileage and travel time to alleviate some of the pressure on caseworkers. 

The agency is also trying to better collaborate with resource parents. For example, next month there will draft revisions to the resource parent bill of rights, Johnson said. 

And it hopes to offer better support to biological parents by funding local prevention councils, which are community resources to educate and support parents with the hope of mitigating potential abuse or neglect. 

“This will complement a public education campaign to let parents know it’s OK to ask for help,” Johnson said

The department is also seeking additional training and tools to better help families dealing with substance use or facing domestic violence, Johnson said. That includes hiring new positions, more thorough risk-assessment and making sure services are available and accessible for families in the communities that need them. 

Furthermore, children’s behavioral health services is starting to work with adolescents who are affected by substance use disorder, Johnson said. 

Like many state government offices, OCFS has been dealing with a high number of vacant positions, but Johnson said there has been a small, slow trend toward decreasing those vacancies. She did not provide specific numbers, though.