The union representing Maine’s child protective services workers has drafted recommendations for improving the broken system as it awaits legislation currently being written by the LePage administration.

The Maine State Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union, on Wednesday released its suggestions, which were developed after surveying caseworkers across the state.

Many caseworkers voiced frustration about their agency in a Maine Sunday Telegram story last month. Their concerns included unsustainable caseloads, being forced to work overtime – including staying in hotels with children who have been removed from homes – and an increase in paperwork that took them away from working with children and families. Mostly, the workers said they felt they weren’t being heard.

The system has come under increased scrutiny, including a legislative investigation, since the deaths of 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset in December and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs in February.

“Our recommendations come from the hearts and souls of front-line Maine workers who go to work every day focused entirely on doing everything within their power to keep Maine children safe,” MSEA-SEIU board member Peggy Rice, a retired social worker and caseworker for Maine DHHS, said in a prepared statement. “These workers know what is working and what isn’t working within the Maine Office of Child and Family Services. In the survey, they shared their hopes and fears. The 10 recommendations we are making are rooted in the urgent need to strengthen this linchpin in Maine’s human services structure.”

‘THE GOVERNOR CONTINUES TO LISTEN’

Among the recommendations offered by the union were hiring more staff, ending forced overtime, improving technology within the agency and strengthening the foster care system so that more families can be used for placement.

Of the 350 caseworkers across eight district offices, 45 participated in the survey, the union said.

Some of these recommendations may be addressed by legislation that is under review by Gov. Paul LePage and his staff. After the July 29 story in the Telegram, LePage said if caseworkers felt they weren’t being heard, he was listening now. However, just two days after that, the governor slammed the union for its “sudden interest in the issue.”

“We have also been gathering suggestions from DHHS’s employees,” LePage said in his weekly radio address. “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.”

The governor’s press secretary, Julie Rabinowitz, said in a statement Wednesday that LePage welcomes the union’s participation in seeking reforms.

“The governor continues to listen to DHHS employees and wants their suggestions for initiatives that will make a meaningful difference, including policy and procedures,” Rabinowitz said, and some of LePage’s bills “will focus on improvements that will directly benefit DHHS caseworkers’ work experience, including improved technology, better staff training, and counseling and other support services.”

In previous statements, LePage has expressed support for criminal prosecution of mandated reporters who don’t report suspected abuse or neglect, and he has made it clear he wants caseworkers to de-prioritize family reunification in child protective cases.

‘A NEED FOR CONTINUED IMPROVEMENT’

Just last week, his Department of Health and Human Services commissioner, Ricker Hamilton, who was responsible for overseeing the child protective services agency, abruptly stepped down. It hasn’t been clear what role, if any, Hamilton had in drafting the legislation related to child protection.

In responding to the concerns of caseworkers, LePage said he was not planning on introducing a bill to add money for more workers – directly contradicting what Hamilton told lawmakers a month earlier.

Speaking before members of the Government Oversight Committee, which has overseen an independent investigation of child protection in the wake of the two high-profile deaths, Hamilton said the administration was recommending 75 new positions.

LePage, however, has said that won’t happen.

But it appears that has changed, as Rabinowitz said in her statement Wednesday that the governor’s initial bills “will include some staff positions, with additional staffing being built into the next biennial budget.”

However, LePage will no longer be governor when the Legislature debates and acts on the next biennial budget.

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A preliminary report in May by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability found that state workers failed to follow procedures and share information, but that report was lacking because DHHS did not provide adequate information to investigators. A more detailed investigation is ongoing.

DHHS also responded to the union’s recommendations Wednesday, with a statement in which spokeswoman Emily Spencer commended caseworkers “for the extraordinary efforts in the last few months” as the agency works to make improvements.

“We agree there is a need for continued improvement and recognize the importance and commitment from the department in hearing from front-line staff in this process,” Spencer said. “Both our staff and the children that depend on us deserve a deliberative approach to strengthening the system, which will be accomplished through a thorough analysis of staffing, technological and training needs within (the Office of Child and Family Services).”

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

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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