The Legislature’s independent watchdog office says excessive workloads, poor training and tight timelines are hampering thorough state investigations into alleged child abuse and neglect.

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability’s second investigative report on the state’s child welfare program was presented to lawmakers Friday and reaffirms longstanding concerns about staffing, including those highlighted by the state employee union. Its first report, released in January, looked at existing oversight and found no major gaps. A third report is due in the fall.

A presentation of the 73-page report to the Legislature’s Government Oversight and Health and Human Services committees did not draw a direct link between those deficiencies and any of the four child deaths that occurred within a month last summer, sparking the ongoing investigation.

Lawmakers already are pushing a series of reforms to improve child safety and expand oversight of the program, and Gov. Janet Mills has proposed additional funding to increase staffing. The report’s findings could be used to draft additional legislation, although the session is rapidly coming to a close.

“I’d ask every member to take this report and think through the suite of bills that have been passed out of HHS and what additional action may be required to ensure we’re doing everything we can to support (the Office of Child and Family Services), and particularly the young people and families they are charged with ensuring safety,” said Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, who chairs the oversight committee. “We have a few more weeks of legislative session and it looks like a bit more work to do.”

The report compares the Legislature’s and state government’s reactions to two high-profile child deaths in 2017 and 2018 to the four deaths last summer.


OPEGA found that in 2017-2018, the state made a quick pivot to prioritize child safety over family preservation – a move that had caseworkers working “from a place of fear.” After the deaths last summer, lawmakers and the state quickly ordered separate investigations, but “OPEGA has not observed the same type of reactive changes as those that occurred in 2018,” the report said.


There also is a lack of consensus about whether it is more important to emphasize child safety through removal from a family or through family preservation, the report says.

“Within and across the many stakeholders engaged in the child welfare system, people have strong beliefs and opinions on which philosophy and approach is best,” the report states. “These beliefs and opinions are shaped by individual experiences, perspectives, risk tolerance and their role in the system. There is no one approach or philosophy that ‘fits’ for all.”

Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, said in a written response to the oversight committee that the department has tried to make improvements while avoiding “policy whiplash” in the wake of last summer’s deaths.

The report also notes a lack of community services, such as behavioral health and substance use treatment, as impediments to protecting children and keeping families together. Landry said in his written response that he agreed with that assessment and noted the administration’s efforts to use federal funding to increase pay for behavioral health workers and making other rate adjustments as needed.


“Services for children and families are an integral part of the child welfare system as families seek to address concerns regarding child safety, permanency, and well-being,” Landry wrote. “The department is committed to improving the accessibility of high-quality, evidence-based services for children and adults, including mental health treatment, substance use treatment, community-based services and crisis care.”

Lawmakers have been looking for ways to bolster the state’s child welfare system and bolster oversight of the program. Eight different bills have been proposed this session.

One of those bills, L.D. 1960, aims to expand and strengthen the state’s Child Welfare Ombudsman Program, which investigates complaints from the public. It received unanimous approval by the Senate this week, but still must be taken up by the House.

And the governor has recommended funding in her supplemental budget, which is being reviewed by lawmakers, to address burnout among caseworkers. Mills recommended adding 16 new caseworker and three new supervisor positions, as well as additional support staff, at the Office of Child and Family Services to cover overnights, weekends and holidays. Mandatory overtime and high workloads had 30 percent of the respondents considering resigning on a daily basis and 23 percent considering it on a weekly basis, according to a union survey.

OPEGA staff told lawmakers on Friday that, as of Jan. 14, 20 of the 150 caseworker positions for investigations were vacant and the full staffing level is 33 positions short of what the department would need, based on current workloads.



Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, said that state should probably look to hire roughly 40 more caseworkers to provide flexibility for when someone takes medical leave or retires.

“Right now, we’re playing baseball without anybody in the bullpen or the dugout and we’re missing some players on the field,” Claxton said. “It’s a lousy combination.”

OPEGA’s report confirmed workload concerns raised in the union survey in January, with 80 percent of supervisors saying the workloads of their caseworkers were unreasonable. Furthermore, 78 percent of supervisors said caseworkers did not have enough time to understand the risk to children during their investigations and 72 percent said caseworkers do not have enough time to assess the needs of families.

Caseworkers are expected to complete investigations into abuse and neglect within 35 days, which a majority of caseworkers and supervisors said simply isn’t enough time. Other states allow between 45 and 60 days, OPEGA analyst Matt Kruk said.

Meanwhile, OPEGA found that high workloads were making it difficult for caseworkers and supervisors to conduct thorough and complete investigations.

OPEGA looked at a random selection of 109 cases over the last few years to see whether they complied with strict federal guidelines. While the cases were conducted in a timely manner, many of the cases did not meet guidelines around risk and safety assessment, and management or caseworker visits with the child to ensure safety.


According to OPEGA’s analysis, only 35 percent of relevant cases met the risk and safety assessment guidelines, 14 percent met standards for safety plans to mitigate risks to the child, 29 percent had safety concerns adequately addressed and only 24 percent of the caseworker visits with the children were sufficient to assess safety and well-being.

While caseworkers were unable to properly assess all individuals or risk factors associated with a complaint, OPEGA found that caseworkers were doing a good job of prioritizing assessments of the most critical and relevant individuals, and the safety risks associated with the allegation.


“To us it became apparent that caseworkers are triaging and prioritizing the most critical and relevant concerns and individuals in a case, but not getting to everything,” Kruk said.

Another barrier to completing timely and thorough investigations, OPEGA said, was the ability to access medical and health records from hospitals, mental health professions and substance use treatment providers.

Training also received low marks in the survey, with 69 percent of caseworkers saying they did not receive adequate training on investigating abuse and neglect allegations before being sent into the field. But caseworkers did give their supervisors high marks, with 78 percent saying their supervisors provide them with support throughout the investigation process.


Landry told lawmakers Friday said that the department has worked with the University of Southern Maine’s Cutler Institute to improve training. The new training program began in January, so it’s too soon to say how the program is working, he said.

Landry believes the governor’s proposal will address some of the workload concerns of workers. And it may allow the state to hire back workers who left and would prefer nontraditional hours, he said.

“In some ways, I think there will be some new opportunities for us to hire qualified staff for those roles,” he said. “If those staff positions are authorized, I think that’s also going to help us with staff retention going forward because more of our remaining staff working those traditional hours will be able to focus on their job duties and not have those impacts on the work-life balance.”

The Government Oversight Committee will hold a public hearing and work session on the report on April 8. A third and final OPEGA report is due in September.

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