AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s watchdog agency reported Friday that Maine’s child protective system is hobbled by overburdened caseworkers, staffing shortages, inefficient computer systems and a lack of foster families that forces caseworkers to supervise abused or at-risk children in hotels and hospitals for long periods.

The findings, based on a survey and interviews with staff in the Office of Child and Family Services, are part of a new report to the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee that follows the deaths of two children in 2017 and 2018.

Marissa Kennedy, 10, of Stockton Springs died in February 2018 and Kendall Chick, 4, died in Wiscasset in December 2017, both as a result of child abuse, law enforcement officials said.

An earlier report by the same investigative agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, found that child protective workers failed to follow policies and procedures in assessing the placement of the girls who died. In one case, OPEGA determined there were widely scattered reports of potential abuse or neglect, but information that might have led to a reassessment of the situation and prompted intervention was not shared at critical moments.

It’s not clear what role a child protective worker’s job performance might have played in either of the two deaths, which focused intense public scrutiny on the Office of Child and Family Services. The Attorney General’s Office has asked OPEGA to refrain from releasing any details about the state’s handling of the cases, in order to avoid jeopardizing law enforcement’s investigation or prosecution of the cases.

The report details the experiences and opinions of caseworkers, supervisors and others in the child and family services office of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Included in the report are the results of a survey sent to all 252 caseworkers and 53 supervisors.

Investigators also interviewed a random sample of 44 people who participated in the survey to gain a deeper understanding of what frontline workers were facing.

Among the critical problems detailed in the report was a shortage of available foster parents, residential care facilities or relatives eligible and willing to take a child, especially a sibling with special needs. This compounded the agency’s ability to find adequate placements for children, the report found.

In one instance, state workers spoke of a case involving a preschool child who was housed in a hotel for 30 days after being placed in the state’s custody because no placement was available.

The report also highlighted concerns about staff shortages, mandated overtime and the requirement that workers stay in hotels and in some instances overnight in hospital emergency rooms to supervise children in state care, according to OPEGA director Danielle Fox. She presented the report to the 10-member oversight committee, which is equally split between Republicans and Democrats.

Fox said the investigation, based largely on the survey and interviews, also found that 23 of 34 caseworkers interviewed said they were required to regularly do work without pay and felt unable to take time off from work.

Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, the Senate chairman of the committee, said little in the report surprised lawmakers, but it did reiterate for them the great stress and workload that child protective service workers find themselves under.

“What we heard today was analysis of what the staff felt,” Chenette said. “And what we heard from frontline workers over and over again was that they were overworked and overwhelmed. So that does impact the quality of work to protect children of the state of Maine, particularly our most vulnerable.”

Republicans on the committee said they, too, were satisfied with the report and appreciated the thoroughness of the OPEGA staff in taking a broad survey of workers.

“It really helps, because what so often happens is you only hear from the people that decide to come (to legislative meetings) and they have issues, they have the problems,” said Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield. “It really helps give us such a great perspective from the variety of people out there doing the work.”

OPEGA found that reports of child abuse to the state increased after news media coverage of the deaths of Kennedy and Chick, and that Maine’s ongoing opioid crisis had also contributed to an increase in reports of more severe child abuse. Among other findings, the report concluded that workers felt they lacked training and administrative support and did not have the time during a regular 40-hour workweek to complete all of the required documentation.

Fox said she could not say whether that meant documentation was not being completed, but that workers were likely doing the work on their own time and were not being paid for it. They also repeated concerns that the record-keeping system is outdated, inefficient and obsolete, Fox said, but ultimately it was not preventing them from doing their jobs.

The OPEGA report also revealed that frontline workers felt policy decisions made by top DHHS officials after the deaths of Chick and Kennedy were not effective and were often disconnected from what workers believed they needed, Fox said.

The report did not lay blame or recommend improvements. Fox said the primary focus of the effort was to capture the perspectives of frontline workers and their supervisors.

The report was compiled after the Legislature passed an emergency bill in September 2018 providing an additional $22 million for the DHHS Office of Children and Family Services to increase the number of child protective caseworkers by 16 and add another 16 supervisors. The bill also provided $8 million toward replacing the agency’s outdated record-keeping system and boosting the pay of frontline workers by $5 to $6 an hour.

In addition, the bill required DHHS to provide an update to the Legislature on the situation in child protective services by the end of January 2019. That report, to be submitted to the Legislature’s Committee on Health and Human Services, has not yet been delivered, Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, said Friday.

The scrutiny of the system after the deaths of Kennedy and Chick came during the administration of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage and DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton, who took over for Mary Mayhew in May 2017, after Mayhew stepped down and later announced she would run for governor.

LePage’s office proposed the emergency legislation, which was ultimately approved by the Legislature, but it remains unclear how much of it has been put in place to date.

Libby suggested that workers in the agency be surveyed again to see if any of the changes directed by the 2018 legislation had been put in place and whether that had started to make a difference for caseworkers or the children and families they served.

Maine’s new DHHS commissioner, Jeanne Lambrew, wrote a letter thanking OPEGA and Fox for the report and vowing to take its findings seriously.

“This work, as the report documents, is stressful, challenging, and yet critical to the safety of children and their families,” Lambrew wrote in the Feb. 14 letter. The agency is conducting a national search for a new director to lead the Office of Children and Family Services, Lambrew wrote.

“Child protection often kicks in when other supports fail: yet its successes often go unrecognized beyond the affected individuals and families,” she wrote. “I hope to change that as Commissioner.”

Lambrew also vowed to listen to frontline workers and provide them with additional training, staff and supervision, saying their message was being heard.

The committee will hold a public hearing on the report on at 9 a.m. on March 8.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

[email protected]

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