Maine’s child welfare agency said Tuesday that the state needs to double the number of new caseworkers to handle an increasing number of abuse and neglect complaints.

Lawmakers approved 33 additional caseworkers last session and the Maine Office of Child and Family Services is now hiring to fill those positions, with 22 filled so far. On Tuesday, a report by the agency said an additional 33 are needed, which, if approved, would bring the total number of caseworkers to 380.

“Evidence is clear that when staff are overworked – whether this is the result of the overall workload, the caseload, or both – they are more likely to rush through their work,” said the report, which was given to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday. “This type of urgency does not benefit the families and can also result in mistakes and accidents that have implications for the health, safety and well-being of both staff and clients.”

Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services  Photo by Kevin Gaddis Jr.

Maine also is hiring additional support staff and supervisors for the caseworkers, boosting the workforce by an extra 29 people. The caseworkers and support staff added more than $11 million to the Office of Child and Family Services budget this year.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and state lawmakers will consider supplemental budget requests in January. The report is not an official supplemental budget request, said Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for Maine DHHS.

Mills has vowed to make sweeping changes to the agency, and hired a new director, Todd Landry, for an overhaul.

The report said that during the past two years “OCFS has seen a tremendous increase in calls to intake, new assessments assigned to staff, and children in care. On July 1, 2018, there were 1,724 children in (state) care. On Sept. 1, 2019, there were 2,195,” the report said.

Also, calls of suspected abuse and neglect that were “deemed appropriate for assessment” surged from 7,463 in 2016 to 11,831 in 2018, an increase of 59 percent.

Maine officials are working on a number of reforms to the state’s child welfare system after the high-profile abuse deaths of 4-year-old Kendall Chick in December 2017 and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in February 2018.

Shawna Gatto, Kendall’s caregiver, was found guilty of depraved indifference murder after a trial and sentenced this summer to 50 years in prisonr, while Marissa’s stepfather, Julio Carrillo, pleaded guilty and was sentenced last month to 55 years in prison for depraved indifference murder. Sharon Carrillo, Marissa’s mother, also has been charged with depraved indifference murder and her case is still pending.

Lindsay Crete, a Mills administration spokeswoman, said in a statement Tuesday that the governor will “closely review” the proposal by the child welfare agency.

“Ensuring the health and safety of Maine children is paramount to Governor Mills,” Crete said. “She will closely review this report submitted to the Legislature and work with department leadership and the Legislature to adequately staff the office and protect the welfare of Maine children.”

The seven-page report said that another challenge to the agency is the “significant turnover” among Office of Child and Family Services workers, with a 35 percent vacancy rate in 2017 and 37 percent vacancy rate in 2018.

Malory Shaughnessy – who represents nonprofits that provide key services for the agency, such as training potential foster parents and temporary, out-of-home placements for children in danger – said she’s encouraged by the new direction being undertaken by Maine’s child welfare system.

“We appreciate there’s a recognition now that these are complex situations that vary dramatically from family to family, and that a cookie-cutter approach just doesn’t work,” said Shaughnessy, executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services. She said she welcomed the change in direction when the Mills administration took over this year from the LePage administration.

The Press Herald has detailed numerous complaints by caseworkers about working conditions, including caseload, turnover, inefficiency, mismanagement, and constantly changing expectations by supervisors. Mills has vowed to make systemic changes at the Office of Child and Family Services. The state’s watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, is currently working on a report about Child Protective Services.

The report released Tuesday also noted geographic disparities in the number of needed caseworkers. For instance, in a central Maine area that covers Kennebec and Somerset counties, there’s a need for an additional 20 caseworkers, while in Cumberland County, the district office is slightly overstaffed, and could operate with two fewer caseworkers.

While state-by-state comparisons are difficult – because of differing state policies in how complaints are screened and investigated – Maine’s caseload is about average, but higher than it used to be in the late 2000s, according to federal data. In 2017, the latest year available for comparison, Maine had 70 completed child abuse investigations per caseworker, which was about the same as the national average of 72, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Maine’s completed cases per worker were in the 50s in the 2000s.

Last week, Landry, the new director of OCFS, said the agency also will soon propose to revive a near-dormant family therapy initiative as a tool to prevent family problems from becoming acute. While details of that proposal will be coming later this fall, potentially dozens of therapists would be hired by nonprofit agencies if lawmakers approved it.

 

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