DHHS caseworkers say system struggling

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Maine child protection caseworkers have been concerned since late last year that widespread problems within their agency were making their jobs harder and putting vulnerable children at risk.

High staff turnover. Low morale. Unmanageable caseloads. Some even said they felt intimidated by superiors. 

Conditions were ripe for tragedy to strike, and late last year it did.

Kendall Chick, 4, of Wiscasset died after being removed by the state from her mother’s care and placed with her grandfather and his fiancee, the latter of whom has been charged with beating the child to death. Two months later, 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy was found dead in Stockton Springs following prolonged abuse, police have alleged, by her mother and stepfather.

With criminal prosecutions pending, investigators and state officials have been careful not to disclose details of what happened to the two young girls and how the system failed them.

But interviews with six caseworkers from three offices in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, as well as internal memos and emails provided to the Telegram, reveal a child protective system that was hobbled by inefficiency, mismanagement, constantly changing expectations and a culture that prioritized “checking boxes” over working with children and families to prevent abuse.

Many workers said their biggest fear at the end of each workday was whether they missed something and, if they did, what the consequence might be for a child.

“This job is hard under the best of conditions and we haven’t been close to (good conditions) for a long time,” said one caseworker, who like others asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution.

After the deaths of Chick and Kennedy, DHHS launched an internal review and started to make changes meant to improve the child protective system. The Legislature also ordered an investigation by its watchdog arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which is still pending.

Caseworkers, though, say many of the corrective steps taken by DHHS have only made matters worse.

More paperwork. A mandate to revisit some cases that had been closed. The sudden and unexplained reassignment of cases from the district office in Rockland, which has resulted in more travel and even bigger caseloads for many. A shift away from a collaborative relationship with families to a more authoritative approach, which has led to more children being removed and, frequently, caseworkers being forced to stay in hotels with children until they can find placement.

“I came into this line of work because I wanted to make positive changes and I don’t feel like that’s the force that’s behind us,” said one.

“We’re not being heard,” said another.

 

‘A Band-Aid
on a bullet hole’

State employees are told explicitly not to speak to the media, but caseworkers agreed to speak with the Telegram, and to provide copies of internal communications, because they said they are frustrated and don’t believe DHHS officials are being truthful or complete when speaking publicly about their agency.

They also are not convinced that their concerns are being heard or communicated to OPEGA.

Emily Spencer, a spokeswoman for DHHS, said agency staff would not be made available for interviews. She asked the newspaper to submit questions by email.

Spencer said in an emailed response that the administration recognizes that front-line workers have been relied on heavily and “should be commended for the incredible work they’ve done.” She also said the hope is that recent changes and ones that have yet to be implemented will help alleviate that pressure.

DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton told lawmakers this month that he hopes to add 75 positions statewide. That’s an abrupt change from an interview he gave News Center Maine (WCSH/WLBZ) in March, when he said staffing levels were not a problem.

The timing of Hamilton’s announcement to increase staff is curious, workers say, because caseloads have been increasing for years.

Physical abuse cases increased by 52 percent, from 686 in 2008 to 1,042 in 2016, while reports of suspected child abuse and neglect climbed 31 percent, from 6,313 cases in 2008 to 8,279 in 2016. Additionally, the number of children in state care has risen by 40 percent, from 1,322 in 2011, Gov. Paul LePage’s first year in office, to 1,852 last year. That increase reverses what had been a steady decline since the early 2000s.

LePage, in the text of his weekly radio address Thursday, addressed “needed reforms to Maine’s child welfare system,” the biggest of which seems to be a shift away from prioritizing family reunification. That will undoubtedly lead to even more removals and placements of children in foster care at a time when there is a shortage of foster families and resources.

The governor said he plans to call a special legislative session this summer to address the problem, but he has not offered a specific date.

Workers said they are skeptical that the new positions envisioned by Hamilton will come to fruition and they worry that the administration is trying to blunt the OPEGA investigation.

“What they are trying to do is put a Band-Aid on a bullet hole,” said one worker. “It’s great that they want to add all these new positions, but we can’t fill the empty positions we have now, and no one is going to want to work under these conditions.”

Added another: “This administration has been cutting for eight years and now, all of a sudden, they have come to the realization that maybe that wasn’t such a good idea?”

 

Computer program relied on for triage 

The Office of Child and Family Services in DHHS includes the child protective services division. Its staff responds to reports of abuse and neglect, makes decisions about removing children from homes and works to find permanent placement for those children, with family reunification being the primary goal.

Front-line caseworkers – between 250-300 statewide – are split into two groups, assessment workers and permanency workers who are stationed in eight district offices throughout the state. They are among the most difficult jobs in state government, even under the best of circumstances, but most make about $20 an hour or less.

Emails provided to the Telegram show that caseworkers have communicated about problems with morale and workload, among other concerns, since last fall.

Many of those concerns were recounted in a lengthy email in January to child protective services staff at the Portland DHHS office from the program administrator, Julie McShane.

“We realize that there are many frustrations around work expectations and implementation of new initiatives. Many of which are out of control, but feedback has been given to the Central Office in this regard,” McShane wrote.

Caseworkers say that feedback went nowhere.

One example was last spring, long before the deaths of Chick and Kennedy, when the office implemented a new idea to help manage caseloads. It’s called structured decision-making, essentially a computer program that triages reports. The most serious or emergent cases, in theory, rise to the top.

“We’re relying on a computer to determine a child’s safety,” said one worker.

Caseworkers say the system is flawed and hasn’t alleviated any of their work.

McShane, in her email to Portland employees in January, seemed to acknowledge the pressure but offered little relief.

“Sometimes directives and decisions must be made, and (we) must follow through with such directives and decisions, regardless as to how unpopular they may be,” she wrote.

Spencer, the DHHS spokeswoman, said the department would not comment on the internal emails and memos.

“What I can say is that the Department has been conducting a review of its policies and procedures for some time now,” she said. “This process started about two years ago and we have been making incremental improvements since. This process takes time and meaningful change cannot be accomplished overnight.”

 

‘Significant increase in workload’ cited

Although child protection workers had been airing concerns for months, the deaths of Chick and Kennedy fueled a public demand for action that forced the agency to move more quickly.

The acting director of the Office of Child and Family Services, Kirsten Capeless, and two other central office administrators outlined new mandates based on an internal review in a memo to staff on June 6.

Collectively, the changes called for a more forceful approach to dealing with child welfare complaints and cases. No more working collaboratively with parents. Cases were to be treated as investigations rather than assessments.

Decisions about child safety had to be reviewed and approved by a supervisor.

Another major change that has added to workload is the gradual phasing out of alternative response, a system DHHS implemented several years ago that delegates less serious reports of abuse to outside contractors. 

One of the biggest reasons the change was made was to help manage caseloads.

Now, child protection workers are getting those cases back. Some are even being asked to comb through older cases that had been handled by alternative response workers to make sure nothing was missed.

Again, caseworkers said that’s not necessarily bad policy, but it’s one more addition to an already staggering workload.

Capeless acknowledged the “significant increase in workload” in a June 7 memo. She wrote that administrators were working on solutions but there were “no easy, quick fixes.”

Just two weeks later, caseworkers in Portland learned that despite all the strategies designed to manage their job responsibilities, even more work would be coming their way.

McShane, the program administrator, wrote to staff on June 21 that “a recent decision … came down from Central Office regarding our district’s coverage.”

On June 25, she wrote, the Portland caseworkers would be taking on all cases from Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties – cases which were previously managed out of the agency’s Rockland office.

Although it’s not spelled out in the email from McShane, caseworkers told the Telegram that other cases that had been assigned to the Rockland office, covering Knox and Waldo counties, were reassigned as well.

McShane told her employees that the decision “was not made lightly.” 

“I truly understand that everyone feels tired, stressed, overworked … and I also understand that by comparing our workloads to that of other districts is not helpful to you all,” she wrote. “This decision was made for safety reasons.”

The Rockland office was responsible for the welfare of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy, the two girls who were killed.

Spencer, the DHHS spokeswoman, would not answer questions about the shift in casework from Rockland but said no one has been or is being laid off. She said assistance is sometimes offered to certain offices when “there is an imbalance in workload.”

Caseworkers said many of the steps taken by DHHS feel like knee-jerk reactions that are not rooted in best practices. They say the changes don’t allow caseworkers to do what they are trained to do, which is to work with families to keep their children, and they worry about the eroding flexibility in responding to reports of abuse. 

For instance, caseworkers previously were able to create a safety plan that parents would sign off on. The child would only be taken if that safety plan wasn’t followed. Now, that’s no longer an option.

“It’s either file for custody or close the case. That’s the choice now,” said one worker. “There is no more warm and fuzzy. We go in there to investigate.”

Out of an abundance of caution, and even some fear that has filtered down to them from bosses, caseworkers are removing more children. But those children don’t always have somewhere to go immediately. When that happens, they stay with caseworkers in hotels, sometimes for multiple days. One worker was on the job from 8 p.m. on a Sunday through 8 a.m. on a Tuesday and then had to be in court later that morning.

Some caseworkers said they neglect their own children to protect Maine’s most vulnerable. 

“That’s the very definition of irony,” one said.

Caseworkers are expected to meet these needs but are not necessarily paid overtime. They say they can sometimes take compensatory time but that rarely happens because they still need to manage cases and new ones are coming in all the time.

 

Staff turnover has risen sharply in last two years

Alec Maybarduk, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, the union that represents child protective workers, said many have reported high levels of stress, management pressure and a “really negative culture.”

“Front-line workers who are providing these services need to have a meaningful voice in the policies and decisions that shape their work,” Maybarduk said. “We think their concerns are not being addressed.”

Capeless said in her June 7 memo that DHHS is considering contracting out certain tasks now performed by caseworkers and adding administrative support. Hamilton, the agency’s commissioner, told lawmakers the same thing this month. 

In describing his intent to add 75 new positions, Hamilton said that in each of the eight DHHS child protective service district offices, there would be an “additional assessment unit with supervisors.” He said more details would be forthcoming, but the idea is to conduct rigorous initial assessments of cases to make sure that abuse is not missed.

Maybarduk said adding staff would be a good step but he noted that the new positions have been characterized as assessment positions. Permanency workers, who handle placement decisions, are even more stressed, he said.

Hamilton has given no timetable for when relief might be on the way for the present staff.

Meanwhile, data provided by the department show that caseworker turnover, which had been dropping steadily since 2012, increased sharply from 2016 to 2017.

Spencer, the DHHS spokeswoman, said there are now about 20 vacancies statewide. She added that anytime a vacancy occurs, the department has an expedited process to fill it.

Some caseworkers said new hires often don’t last because they don’t know what the job entails.

“They don’t tell you that you have all this work to do but you’re not going to get paid because there is no way to do it in 40 hours,” one said. “The joke is: Don’t bother learning someone’s name until they’ve been here six months.”

 

‘Where does he think these children will go?’

To caseworkers, the announcement by Hamilton this month that the department would add 75 new positions seemed like a public relations move.

 “It’s the administration saying ‘we’ve got this,’” said one. “I don’t think they want OPEGA to keep investigating.”

Spencer, however, said that although the bill being drafted by the administration will attempt to fix problems within the system, Hamilton and the governor are committed to making more changes as recommendations come in from OPEGA and from the Child Death and Serious Injury Review Panel, a standing committee in state government.

She disputed the notion that there are divisions between front-line staff and administrators.

“We all make up DHHS and we are on the same team, working toward a shared goal of protecting the children who depend on us,” she wrote. “There may be disagreements on what the right approach to these issues should be, but each one of us show up every day with the intention of doing what is in the best interest of those we serve.”

However, with some caseworkers saying they felt intimidated by their managers, Spencer did acknowledge that “front-line staff may not feel comfortable going directly to a member of leadership with a complaint or concern.”

“For that reason, Director Capeless set up a means of direct communication which allows caseworkers to anonymously email her with their concerns,” she wrote.

As for LePage, in his comments last week he advocated for a fundamental change in how DHHS approaches child abuse cases – specifically a shift away from prioritizing family reunification. 

“The best reform we can make is to change the law to place the priority on what is best for the child, not family reunification,” he said. “Prioritizing family reunification forces DHHS and courts to repeatedly attempt to keep vulnerable children in dangerous situations – when the best decision would be to remove the child.”

If the state retreats from reunification and favors removal and placement in foster care, it will have gone full circle, back to a child protective approach that prevailed more than a decade ago. That’s when 5-year-old Logan Marr was killed by a foster parent – who happened to be a former DHHS caseworker.

Marr’s death dominated headlines and prompted the state to shift away from fostering and toward family reunification. It led to a dramatic reduction in child removals and brought national accolades for Maine’s child welfare system. 

Now, the state could be moving back – much to the dismay of the caseworkers who know the system.

“I haven’t read anywhere about his plan to address the foster care system,” one worker said of the governor’s proposal. “Where does he think these children will go?”

Caseworkers who are already feeling whiplash from all the changes and the increase in workload said they wonder how much more they can take.

One worker, asked to respond to the governor’s address, called it “more empty words.”

“Why not be specific if he has a plan?” the worker asked. “People have been begging for answers.”

 

This caseworker, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, is one of six Department of Health and Human Services employees who agreed to speak to the Maine Sunday Telegram, revealing systemic problems within the state’s child protective services. Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald)

The deaths last year of Kendall Chick, left, 4, of Wiscasset, and Marissa Kennedy, 10, of Stockton Springs spurred changes in the state’s child protective services that caseworkers say only made things worse.

 

 

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, speaks during a meeting of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee in March in Augusta. After the deaths of children in December and February, the Legislature ordered an investigation by its watchdog arm — the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability — the results of which are still pending. Health and Human Services launched its own internal review. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, speaks during a meeting of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee in March in Augusta. After the deaths of children in December and February, the Legislature ordered an investigation by its watchdog arm — the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability — the results of which are still pending. Health and Human Services launched its own internal review. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, speaks during a meeting of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee in March in Augusta. After the deaths of children in December and February, the Legislature ordered an investigation by its watchdog arm — the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability — the results of which are still pending. Health and Human Services launched its own internal review. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)

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