Gov. Paul LePage says the state’s child protective caseworkers are finally “being heard.” But just who is he listening to?

Caseworkers who spoke with the Maine Sunday Telegram recently describe a system that wilted under the pressure of escalating caseloads, and through indifferent management. The protests of the beleaguered staff, they told reporter Eric Russell, went unacknowledged until the deaths of two girls just weeks apart meant they couldn’t be ignored any longer.

Even then, the caseworkers say, the LePage administration has responded poorly, actually adding tasks for the overburdened caseworkers.

And now the governor says his bill to repair a system that unraveled on his watch will do nothing to relieve the pressure on the front-line workers.

The bill, LePage said Monday, will include money for training and a new computer system, but not additional caseworkers. It would be too hard to train the new employees at the same time as the current ones, he said, so he’s shoving the problem he let fester onto the next governor.

That stance is a reversal from last month, when DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton told lawmakers the bill would increase staff by 25 percent, which itself was a reversal from earlier statements, when Hamilton said that staff levels were not the problem, and LePage downplayed his administration’s role in the crisis.

With child protection services in turmoil, and the caseworker job exceedingly tough on a good day, a quick reverse is unlikely. But at the very least, a message should be sent to caseworkers that help is on the way, and that their concerns will no longer be ignored.

Fortunately, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee is also drafting legislation to be vetted during an upcoming special session.

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

Lawmakers should be wary, however, of the administration’s response to any legislation that runs counter to LePage’s wishes.

Faced with another LePage-created crisis in DHHS last year, the Legislature passed a law mandating the hiring of more than 20 public health nurses by March 1. According to a lawsuit filed recently by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Brownie Carson of Brunswick, only six were hired, and a DHHS official in June told Carson that there was no plan to hire more, as the law explicitly states.

Hamilton in that case too said DHHS was excited about the initiative, telling lawmakers in January, “We want it to succeed,” despite the fact that DHHS had testified against the bill, and LePage had unsuccessfully vetoed it.

Clearly, the administration’s word is not worth much. LePage and Hamilton have talked a lot about confronting the problems in child protection services head on, but their actions say otherwise.

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