Gov. Paul LePage, responding to growing concerns raised by state child protection services caseworkers, said Monday that he’s “all over it,” and hopes to have legislation drafted this week that will make their jobs easier.

Gov. Paul LePage says the state’s practices to protect children are “not a perfect system, but we are working at it.”

The governor said he’ll be asking lawmakers for more money for staff training, more money to upgrade the agency’s systems and a better way to evaluate workers so they don’t burn out and leave.

He said the bill will not, however, include money for new caseworkers, something that he and Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton proposed this month.

“Look, it’s not a perfect system, but we are working at it,” LePage said late Monday morning after an event at the International Marine Terminal in Portland.

Several child protection caseworkers spoke to the Maine Sunday Telegram for a story published Sunday about widespread problems within their agency that date back to last year, before the high-profile deaths of two young girls.

The workers described a system plagued by inefficiency, mismanagement, unmanageable caseloads and constantly shifting expectations. They said that, despite efforts to improve, problems have only worsened in recent weeks as the administration has faced public and political pressure to act after the deaths of 4-year-old Kendall Chick in Wiscasset last December, and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs in February.

Mostly, though, workers said they felt their voices weren’t being heard.

Asked to respond to that criticism, LePage said, “I’ll tell you, we’ve certainly been listening to them lately.

“I mean, I am all over it. I’ve been talking to everybody. I have Ricker Hamilton going to each office. So if they weren’t being heard before, they’re being heard now.”

LePage said the legislation that his office is working on could be released as early as this week. He did not say how much money the bill would request, but said better training and support, and especially an upgraded document system, will free up caseworkers’ time.

“We have a system that is so manual that our caseworkers spend more time writing notes than they do caring for the children and the families to which they are assigned,” he said.

The governor decided against including money for new caseworker positions, and would instead propose that as part of the next biennial budget request, which would be settled after he leaves office.

“The reason I’m doing it in the budget and not this minute is very simply: We need additional training for the existing staff and I don’t want to take inexperienced people, pull them into a bunch of people that need additional training and do it all at once,” LePage said. “I want to solidify what we have … to grow that experience level and the training for those folks so they can become mentors for the new employees that we bring on later in the year.”

Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican from Augusta who co-chairs the Government Oversight Committee, which has initiated an investigation of child protection, said LePage is directly contradicting what his administration said less than a month ago.

“Any responsible solution has to include more caseworkers,” Katz said. “We have a system in crisis and I think it’s irresponsible to wait until next year to solve it.”

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio of Sanford, the Democratic co-chair of the oversight committee, agreed with Katz but said she wasn’t surprised the governor decided not to ask for more positions.

“I think they are feeling the pressure to do something, without necessarily knowing what will have the greatest impact,” she said.

Caseworkers have been skeptical about the addition of new positions because the agency has not been able fill the positions that are open now. A high turnover rate, coupled with a steep increase in the number of reports of abuse or neglect, has caseworkers, most of whom make $20 an hour or less, near their breaking point.

Both Katz and Mastraccio applauded workers for speaking out and said they should be supported. They cautioned the administration, though, about proposing more changes that may not be rooted in best practices.

One of those changes, which LePage detailed in his radio address last week, would be shifting the child protective system away from relying so heavily on family reunification for at-risk children. That’s not something the Legislature has to approve and it already has begun in practice, according to caseworkers.

“I’m not saying that reunification isn’t important, don’t misinterpret what I’ve been trying to say,” the governor said Monday when asked about that. “What I’m saying is reunification should be a tool in the toolbox to help kids. What we do now is the top priority is reunification, so you take a child out of a high-risk family and you work with the family and you put them back in. How many times do you put them back before you make the decision of what’s the best interest of the child?”

But Katz said he hopes lawmakers have a “robust debate and discussion” about family reunification and other topics.

“We don’t want to overreact to these two deaths by making policy that’s not grounded in research,” he said.

Mastraccio said the governor might be missing the bigger picture about why more children are at risk.

“All those supports and services that used to be there for families, they’re just not there anymore,” she said. “And we know families in poverty are more likely to see neglect or abuse.”

A shift toward less family reunification could also mean a strain on the foster care system, something LePage acknowledged.

“The foster care system needs some upgrading itself,” he said. “We need to do better training and we need to treat them a little bit nicer.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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