AUGUSTA —  State lawmakers are contemplating a bill that would limit the caseloads for state child protective workers, a shift aimed at closing cracks in a system that advocates say contributed to the deaths of two young girls in late 2017 and early 2018.

State Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, told members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Monday that child protective workers overburdened with cases cannot fully protect Maine’s vulnerable children. She urged the committee to set standards for caseloads based on the recommendations of a national organization focused on child welfare.

“The taxpayers of Maine, the people of Maine, should expect that something like child protective services is going to do the utmost best to protect children,” Madigan, who also serves on the committee, told her colleagues. “And to be honest we haven’t been doing a good job of it. I don’t blame the caseworkers. It’s a terribly difficult job.”

Madigan said the deaths of  Marissa Kennedy, 10, of Stockton Springs and Kendall Chick, 4, of Wiscasset – who both died as a result of child abuse, according to law enforcement officials – compelled her to do something.

Chick, who died in December 2017, was placed by the state Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Protective Services division with Stephen Hood, her paternal grandfather, and Shawna Gatto, his fiancée. Gatto, who has been charged in the slaying, will go on trial next week. The charge is depraved indifference murder, a classification signifying that the accused showed no regard for the value of human life.

Officials say Kennedy, who died in February 2018, slipped through the cracks of an overburdened system and that she was neglected and beaten for months by her death by her mother and stepfather, Sharon and Julio Carrillo, both of whom have been charged with depraved indifference murder in her death.

The deaths prompted then-Gov. Paul LePage to submit legislation to beef up child protective services, and the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee ordered an investigation trying to determine how the state’s child protective system failed. The committee also conducted a survey of child protective workers.

A key finding of that investigation was that caseworkers had too many cases to manage them effectively. The Legislature has already approved increasing the number of caseworkers on the front lines and Madigan’s bill is one of several that seeks to tighten the system while improving working conditions for child protective services workers.

“The more cases you have the less you can possibly do,” Madigan, said. “You can’t defy the laws of physics and create more hours in the day.”

The legislation to allow DHHS to establish rules on caseloads based on recommendations of the Child Welfare League of America that could vary from region to region and include consideration for travel time in more rural parts of Maine has gained the support of DHHS officials.

DHHS also hired a consulting agency to conduct an analysis of the state’s child welfare system. That agency, Public Consulting Group, issued recommendations to the department in February, including a recommendation to establish caseload standards at or below a ratio of one child protective worker for every 10 cases.

In a letter to the committee, Elissa Wynne, the acting director of the Office of Child and Family Services in DHHS, said her office supports the establishment of “robust guidelines that will inform the Department’s staffing decisions” regarding caseworkers, support staff and supervisors.

Wynne also indicated another phase of the analysis by the consulting group is expected to include additional information on staffing needs for all of the department’s district offices in Maine. She said Maine’s rural nature requires caseworkers to spend a significant amount of time traveling, which affects caseloads, and she warned that the recommendations of the Child Welfare League of America may be outdated, as they are 16 years old.

Also testifying in support of the bill was Jeff McCabe, the director of politics and legislation for a state employees union that includes caseworkers. He gave the committee the results of a survey of 45 child protective workers, showing 100 percent of them had concerns about their caseloads. McCabe also offered recommendations from caseworkers, including lowering the caseload to 12 cases per worker, hiring additional administrative staff and ending forced overtime, among others.

“The increase in caseloads for child protective workers is truly unsustainable, it’s unsafe, it leads to insufficient rates of workforce turnover,” McCabe said. “We believe that establishing caseload limits based on national recommendations is essential in addressing turnover and in ensuring that vulnerable children are protected.”

Madigan’s bill will be the subject of a work session before the committee in the weeks ahead, before it is considered by the full Legislature.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

sthist[email protected]

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