AUGUSTA – Front-line workers trying to protect Maine children from neglect and abuse gave lawmakers a sobering view of challenges inside the state’s child welfare system during an unprecedented hearing at the State House Wednesday.

Five current and former caseworkers, who often bear the brunt of parental anger and public blame for tragedies, painted a picture of a central office that is out of touch with front-line workers who are increasingly stretched thin and overworked because of severe staffing shortages and high turnover. Meanwhile, a lack of mental health and substance use services – and court backlogs – create obstacles that keep families stuck in the system and prevent them from resolving cases, they said.

They told lawmakers about safety concerns of responding alone to calls involving suspected domestic violence and drug use, and about being threatened by angry parents. They talked about being assaulted, kicked and spit on by children with significant behavior issues stemming from suspected abuse. And they talked about being stalked by family members after removing children from a home.

Several shed tears while speaking about trying to meet unrealistic expectations set by upper management as they struggle to keep up with high caseloads and mandatory overnight shifts, when staff take turns watching children who are stuck in hospitals and hotel rooms because of a lack of foster homes for children with significant behavioral issues.

“People look to us like we have all of the answers, but the reality is, we do not because we work within a broken system with a huge gap in mental health services,” said Maureen Cote, who has been a caseworker since 2018. She said caseworkers play too many roles, including being a crisis worker, residential staff, childcare worker, parent, support worker, transporter and visit supervisor.

The hearing was a watershed moment in a review of Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services that was launched nearly two years ago in response to four child deaths within one month during the summer of 2021. Until Wednesday, no caseworkers had provided on-the-record testimony to lawmakers as part of the probe.


In recent meetings, lawmakers have become increasingly frustrated with OCFS Director Todd Landry, saying he was papering over ongoing issues. The seemed to reach a breaking point when the department’s own analysis determined they are getting worse at preventing repeated maltreatment of children.

Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, co-chairs the Government Oversight Committee, which held Wednesday’s hearing as part of a more aggressive meeting schedule ahead of the upcoming session. Hickman said he hoped that senior leaders, such as Department of Health and Human Services Commission Jeanne Lambrew, were listening to the workers’ testimony.

Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Kennebec Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Hickman noted that lawmakers can enact laws and providing funding for programs, but can’t address management issues within an agency.

“Our biggest role is uncovering the problem, even if we don’t have the power to fix it,” Hickman said of the committee. “I would hope that the commissioner is listening.”

Peter Schleck, the director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Program Review, said he has heard from about a dozen front-line workers, and future sessions may be scheduled to hear from more caseworkers and others who are required by law to report suspected child abuse.

DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell said Landry, who didn’t attend the hearing, “takes the concerns of caseworkers very seriously” and highlighted the positive things caseworkers said about their immediate supervisors and co-workers, as well as their commitment to working with families.


“The Department of Health and Human Services and Office of Child and Family Services value the work, suggestions and concerns of child welfare caseworkers,” Farwell said. “We are assessing those (issues) raised at the hearing as well as those that come in through other channels. We also will continue to provide answers to specific questions from the Legislature.”

The Mills administration has added positions in the office to try to reduce caseloads but has struggled to fill vacancies amid a national workforce shortage that is affecting the private and public sectors.


Multiple caseworkers talked about how staffing vacancies and personnel turnover are increasing workloads and burnout among the dedicated workers who remain. There’s a lack of training and support from managers above the level of their immediate supervisors, they said.

While many of the issues have been flagged in previous anonymous surveys of caseworkers, hearing it directly from workers gave the problems more weight and immediacy.

Rahshel Cadima, who recently resigned as a caseworker in Lewiston, described how a co-worker was expected to work the day after she learned that a child client had died. She said her colleague had to help with the investigation, plan the funeral and write the child’s obituary “with no significant support from anybody above her supervisor, and she was expected to come to work the next day.”


Caseworkers took aim at top administration for increasing oversight of overworked caseworkers by adding middle managers, who were drawn from a shallow pool of caseworkers and supervisors. They said the additional oversight and reviews added more work without addressing the root problems.

“We’re being reviewed to death,” said Diane McGonagle, who has worked for the Department of Health and Human Services since 2000. She recently came out of retirement to resume working part time. “Yes, we need it, but they have made all of those new positions to review us, but what we need is workers to do the job.”

Cote said the department has been moving “in a negative direction” in the last five years, saying that the change comes “from the top down.” She said the reviews only add to an increasing workload, taking more time away from working with families.

“The problem with this is that it only adds to our workload instead of relieving us of some of it,” Cote said. “We are forced to bite off more than we can chew and then held accountable for when we don’t meet expectations.”

Inadequate training has been cited repeatedly in reviews of the office’s shortcomings. Caseworkers said it’s fueling turnover.



Cote said she drafted a detailed plan for a field training caseworker program to help new caseworkers learn the complexities of the job by teaming new workers with experienced caseworkers, only to have it ignored by central office. And Cote said she didn’t feel comfortable speaking directly to Landry during site visits.

“They do come to the districts once in a great while to tell us what they’re doing, but not always is it an environment we feel comfortable providing our feedback about real-life solutions on how we can improve the child welfare,” she said. “When the director comes down he has been aggressive in his tone and aggressive in his body language in one meeting … that made me feel very uncomfortable.”

Caseworkers said lawmakers need to consider higher pay for front-line workers. Such a move would help retain experienced caseworkers and supervisors, while attracting new ones who can help ease the caseloads and workloads of everyone.

Sara Ament, a Skowhegan caseworker, said a lack of services to attend to mental health or substance use also contributes to high caseloads.

“The wait is just counterproductive,” Ament said. “It’s selling the parents short on their opportunity to reunify. We’re looking to measure their progress in ways that may be untenable based on the fact the parent may need services that aren’t there.”

Court backlogs also are a concern. Ament said it can take months to get a court hearing to resolve a case. That adds to her workload, because state law requires her to keep working to reunify the family until a judge rules on the case, even if the parents are clearly not engaging with them.



Like other caseworkers, Ament said lawmakers need to increase pay both to retain experienced caseworkers and to attract new caseworkers.

“We do not go into social work for the money,” Ament said. “But we certainly do not go into social work to struggle, either.”

Mindy Bard said she resigned from being a caseworker in Portland because of the time demands. She said she could not handle her workload in a 40-hour week.

As a single mom with three kids, Bard said she simply couldn’t keep responding to emergencies and after-hour demands to watch other people’s children in hospitals and hotel rooms while her kids needed to be picked up from school and cared for.

“That happened so many times I felt like I was kind of neglecting my own children and I didn’t have a choice in the matter,” Bard said. “I was struggling trying to maintain my family life.”


She didn’t want to quit, but she felt like she had no choice.

“The work is important,” she said. “It was honestly hard for me to leave. I liked my job. I liked ensuring kids were safe, but it simply wasn‘t doable.”

Hickman paused when asked what was the biggest takeaway from the hearing.

“I learned caseworkers are angels,” he said. “It’s just not their fault.”

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