Gov. Paul LePage slammed the state employees’ union in his weekly radio address Wednesday, accusing it of trying to take credit for reforms his administration is proposing in the child protection system after the deaths of two children.

LePage’s attack on the Maine State Employees Association came just two days after he said he was listening and responding to the concerns raised by front-line caseworkers in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Six caseworkers who spoke to the Portland Press Herald for an article published Sunday detailed chronic problems with unmanageable caseloads, inefficiency, mismanagement and constantly shifting expectations. In the story, a union spokesman reinforced those concerns, saying caseworkers were frustrated because the issues they raised were not being addressed.

LePage has argued for reforms in the system, but said this week that his administration’s proposal to add 75 caseworkers to alleviate overwhelmed workers would have to wait until next year, after he is out of office.

The caseworkers, who were not identified because they feared on-the-job reprisals if their names were published, said their concerns were being ignored by the LePage administration.

“We’re not being heard,” one worker said.

The child protective system has come under intense scrutiny since the deaths of Kendall Chick, 4, of Wiscasset in December, and Marissa Kennedy, 10, of Stockton Springs in February. One of Kendall’s caretakers has been charged with depraved indifference murder in her death, and Marissa’s mother and stepfather are each facing the same charge in Marissa’s death.

DHHS has undertaken an internal review of its child protection system, with direction from LePage. The Legislature also has gotten involved, directing its watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, to examine the two deaths and carry out a long-term study of the system.

Kendall Chick, left, and Marissa Kennedy

LePage told the Press Herald on Monday that he was “all over” the problem and would listen to employees’ concerns.

“So if they weren’t being heard before, they’re being heard now,” the governor said.

But on Wednesday he lambasted the MSEA, saying the union spoke to the media without first bringing up the concerns to him.

“Reforming our child welfare system is the right thing to do. However, I take exception to the union’s sudden interest in this issue,” LePage said in the radio address. He said the union had chosen to go to the media and never requested to meet with him to make improvements in the system.

“Based on internal reviews at DHHS, a number of changes have already been made in how child welfare cases are handled,” LePage said. “We have also been gathering suggestions from DHHS’s employees. However, the state employees’ union director, Alec Maybarduk, told the media last week that the union does not think DHHS workers’ concerns are being addressed. As governor, I am troubled by the response of the state’s unions.”

NOT A ‘SUDDEN INTEREST,’ UNION SAYS

Ramona Welton, MSEA president, disputed LePage’s assertion that the union had taken a “sudden interest” in the issue. She said in a prepared statement that the MSEA “for years has been calling attention to Gov. LePage’s refusal to address adequate staffing and recruitment and retention issues in Maine DHHS and throughout state government.”

The number of Child Protective Services caseworkers has remained flat – about 325 workers – while reports of suspected child abuse and neglect have skyrocketed in recent years, from 6,313 cases in 2008 to 8,279 cases in 2016. The number of children in state care has also jumped, from 1,322 in 2011 to 1,852 in 2017, a 40 percent increase.

Welton said the MSEA regularly hears from caseworkers about issues in DHHS.

“They are fed up with trying to raise these issues to the deaf ears of department leadership and together they are standing up publicly for a meaningful voice and real investment solutions,” she said. “If, after 7½ years, the governor is only now realizing we’ve been raising these and other concerns, he hasn’t been paying attention.”

MORE CHANGES IN THE WORKS

Since this spring, lawmakers and LePage have advocated for reforms in the child protective system. LePage has said he wants to upgrade computer software systems and provide more training for workers, among other changes. A bill to address some shortcomings in the system is forthcoming in a special legislative session to be held in the coming weeks. LePage said this week that the staff needs to be trained first before bringing in more-inexperienced workers.

LePage acknowledged that “some of the temporary changes we have made at DHHS have increased staff workloads, but it is because we are putting children first. I will always put the life of a child first.”

The governor repeatedly has criticized the child protective system’s emphasis on family reunification, saying that policy is putting children at risk. Caseworkers have said that since the two deaths, DHHS has become less flexible in working with parents, and that more children are being removed from homes – even though there are not enough foster families available for placements. Some caseworkers report spending several nights in motels with children as they wait for openings.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: joelawlorph

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