Andrew Schoening has one word for the top brass in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services who say, in the wake of last month’s horrendous murder of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy, that they have enough staff out there protecting Maine’s most vulnerable children.

“Bullcrap,” Schoening said Tuesday morning amid the din of a coffee shop near his home in Waterville. “Bullcrap.”

Sure, he’s angry about young Marissa, allegedly beaten senseless by her parents over a period of months until she just couldn’t hang on any longer for help to arrive. Who among us isn’t irate?

But Schoening sees this from an angle most of us can’t. Until last May, when he resigned from what he came to view as an impossible job, he was a DHHS child protection caseworker.

Schoening is 70. He’s been a social worker since 1974, when he began looking out for neglected and abused kids in Ohio.

He moved to Maine 30 years ago and worked a variety of jobs before deciding, in late 2015, that he wanted to spend the final five years or so of his work life doing something worthwhile, something that mattered.

So, he applied for and was immediately hired as a DHHS child-abuse caseworker in Skowhegan.

He lasted a year and a half. Not because his supervisors didn’t like him or he didn’t like them – to this day, he applauds the skill, compassion and dedication of his former co-workers, whose district encompasses all of rural Somerset County.

No, Schoening’s problem was one of simple mathematics: The hours required to adequately meet his responsibilities exceeded, usually by far, the 40 hours in his work week.

“I didn’t need this job. I wanted this job,” he said. “I think it’s really a calling more than a job.”

Even on day one, when he showed up for what he thought would be six weeks of training, Schoening got a surprise. Awaiting him were 14 active cases, all his – notwithstanding that for the next month and a half, he’d spend four out of five days each week in training.

“Then I come back (from training) and I’ve got one day,” he said. “But I’ve got 14 cases. I never caught up.”

Let’s go to the numbers.

As a “permanency worker” who tries whenever possible to reunite families torn apart by dangerous dysfunction, Schoening’s average load of 14 cases typically involved 21 children – each of whom he had to meet face-to-face at least once a month.

And by “meet,” we’re talking about a sit-down long enough to truly assess how things were going.

“You can’t call up and say, ‘Hey, I’m driving down (Route) 201 and I’ll be there at 1:30. Would you hold the kid up in the picture window when I go by so I can say I saw him?’ ” he said. “Unacceptable.”

Add to all those children the two dozen foster parents and/or relatives with whom the children had been placed. They required monthly meetings too, as did the 19 or so parents who, depending on how their lives were going, may or may not get their children back.

That’s 64 people who, if he did his job properly, required in-person visits from Schoening.

Now let’s talk monthly workload.

In addition to all those house calls, Schoening and his fellow caseworkers each served two or three “duty days,” during which they were tethered to the district office taking calls from intake workers, meeting with walk-ins and performing other tasks unrelated to their own cases.

In addition, each had two or three “secondary duty days,” when they’d be on call should the primary duty-day worker have a court appearance or some other outside-the-office commitment.

Then there were the four “doc days,” when caseworkers theoretically could turn off their phones and work exclusively on legal summaries, case narratives and the mountainous other paperwork so critical to tracking each child and family.

And if a sudden emergency arose involving one of his cases, as they often did? Goodbye doc day, hello more unfinished paperwork.

Court days took anywhere from one to three days each month, many of them spent waiting around the courthouse from 8:30 a.m. until his case was finally called.

Meeting days – be they district staff gatherings, office briefings or case management conferences – consumed at least another day, maybe two.

Now back to those visits, by far the most important part of Schoening’s job.

Based on his calculations, the other demands on his time left him an average of 59 hours a month to observe and keep tabs on those 64 people – some in sprawling Somerset County, some as far afield as the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

Flipping open his 2017 appointment book, where he also kept careful track of his time and mileage, Schoening read from a random date: “Skowhegan, Augusta, North Anson, Cornville, Waterville. One hundred thirty point four miles.”

One day in February of 2017, he noted, he started his day at 8 a.m. and completed his last home visit at 10 p.m.

Which brings us to overtime, including those countless nights when Schoening and his peers got home, flipped open their laptops and kept working for a few hours in a never-ending effort to catch up.

Once, on a vacation camping trip, Schoening’s wife became understandably irritated when he pulled out his tablet in the middle of nowhere and created an internet hotspot, fired up his computer and dove for a few hours into his backlog of reports, visit recaps, correspondence …

During the first year or so on the job, Schoening received overtime pay for some, if not all, of his extra hours.

But then, shortly before he left, he ran head-on into a new DHHS “flex-time” policy: For every hour over 40 worked in one pay period, a caseworker had to stay home for an hour during a subsequent week.

Schoening will never forget the day his supervisor told him he’d accumulated 20 “flex” hours and ordered him to take off half of the upcoming week.

“I’m like, I can’t lose that 20 hours. I’m already behind 20 hours,” Schoening said.

That proved to be his breaking point. Reluctantly, he told his bosses “I just can’t do it anymore” and joined the exodus of workers who left the Skowhegan office during his tenure at a turnover rate of 80 percent.

(Before he left, he quietly compared notes with a co-worker, a three-year veteran, who also kept tabs on turnover. She confirmed his 80 percent finding.)

Sure, Schoening likely was the oldest caseworker in Maine. But far from slowing him down, he said, his age helped him connect with many a family much like a parent or grandparent they never had.

“I would say (to some young parents), ‘I’m really proud of how you’ve done,’ ” he recalled. “And they would take that seriously because of my age and how I look. These are people who never had anybody tell them they were anything but dirt and scum.”

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He even watched children’s cartoons and got to know the characters by name – a useful tool in meeting skittish, sometimes frightened kids on their turf, not his.

We can’t print here what Schoening would say to former DHHS commissioner and current Republican gubernatorial candidate Mary Mayhew if he met her on the street.

Ditto for current Commissioner Ricker Hamilton, who told News Center Maine (WCSH/WLBZ) Wednesday that child-protective staffing is not a problem. And Gov. Paul LePage, who on the same day had the gall to call Marissa Kennedy’s death a “comedy of errors.”

But Schoening, who now works at Lowe’s Home Improvement in Augusta, does plan to meet soon with his local lawmakers.

His message for them: Maine’s at-risk kids need more people and more support on the front lines – starting with per-worker caseloads that should never exceed 10.

“Put your money where your mouth is,” he’ll tell them. “If you really are concerned about child protection, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to bite the bullet and come up with some money.”

He paused for a moment, eyes still ablaze.

“Because that’s the only thing that’s going to do it,” he finally said. “Money.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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