Maine has taken bold steps to improve the safety of children in state custody. But it’s not nearly enough.

Not according to a report issued by the Maine Office of Child and Family Services, which identifies an acute shortage of child protective caseworkers, even after significant additions to their ranks since last year.

This spring the Legislature approved funding for 33 more caseworkers, on top of the 20 positions it approved last year. The agency says it will need another 33 caseworkers to be able to manage the life-or-death situations they encounter when investigating evidence of child abuse and neglect.

“Evidence is clear that when staff are overworked  … they are more likely to rush through their work,” the report said, stating the obvious. “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.”

It’s important to remember the kind of mistakes that brought this matter to public view.

Late in 2017, 4-year-old Kendall Chick was beaten to death by her caregiver after she had been removed from her parents’ custody. Weeks later, 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy was beaten to death by her stepfather after the Maine Department of Health and Human Services failed to act on credible reports of abuse in the family.

Kendall’s killer, Shawna Gatto, was convicted of depraved indifference murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison. Marissa’s killer, Julio Carrillo, pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 55 years. Charges against Marissa’s mother are still pending.

But the criminal cases will leave many questions unanswered, such as: What would have happened to these two girls if they hadn’t died at their abusers’ hands? Given more time, would the state have been able to stop the abuse, or would these girls still be living through daily torture? And what protections exist for other children in the state system who are still alive, but suffering in intolerable circumstances?

The new administration at the department is taking a number of positive steps to improve child welfare. Todd Landry, recently hired as director of the Office of Child and Family Services, has announced plans to revive a near-dormant family therapy program, and improvements to the state’s mental health and drug treatment programs will keep more families together.

But the best way to fight for the kids who are in the greatest need is to get more child protective caseworkers on the job and give them realistic caseloads and the kind of supervision, training and support they need to succeed.

Some people in Augusta like to say it’s wrong to “throw money at a problem,” but that’s like telling firefighters not to waste water. The problem has been identified. It’s serious. Fixing it will cost money. There is no other way.

How much? In June, the Legislature appropriated an additional $11 million for Child and Family Services to fund 33 caseworkers, six caseworker supervisors and four caseworker aides. So far, 22 of the caseworker positions have been filled.

The Legislature will convene again in January, and a first order of business will be amending the two year budget passed in June.

Making sure that the child protective workforce is up to the difficult job it’s been given should be a top priority.

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.