A review of more than 200 randomly selected child protection cases involving reuniting a child with their family found that all failed to meet at least one federal standard for doing so, while most failed to meet more than one.

A new report from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which conducted the review and interviewed state workers, parents and other stakeholders, identified a range of challenges to meeting the federal government’s goal of finding a permanent home for children.

OPEGA Director Peter Schleck told lawmakers Friday that caseworkers are not meeting a federal requirement to ask a court to terminate parental rights when their children have been in state custody for 15 of the most recent 22 months. That deficiency and others found while reviewing 235 case files dating back to 2017 are mostly tied to a lack of staffing and community services for parents struggling with mental health and substance use, Schleck said.

“These are not apparently isolated issues,” Schleck said. “These are what we would categorize as systemic challenges.”

OPEGA found:

• A parent’s substance use wasn’t accurately assessed in 54% of 175 relevant cases.


• In 63% of 211 relevant cases, parents weren’t provided with information about goals and services so they could be reunited with their kids.

• Needed services, especially for mental health and substance use, were not provided in 70% of 210 relevant cases.

• In 62% of relevant cases, reunification remained the goal for too long, and there were delays in seeking to terminate parental rights in 51% of 146 relevant cases.

“High workloads driven by caseworker vacancies, a lack of support staff, and a lack of visitation supervisors and transportation for families, all place additional burdens on caseworkers which can adversely impact all parts of practice,” the report concludes.

Lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee also voted unanimously in support of a series of recommendations for the Mills administration and the Legislature to consider, including recruiting and retaining additional case aides to help ease the workloads of caseworkers, improving training and mentorship of new caseworkers, and creating special teams for complex cases.

The Department of Health and Human Services has acknowledged problems in the child welfare program and department spokesperson Lindsay Hammes said in an email Friday that “the department appreciates the Government Oversight Committee’s diligence in addressing the health and safety of Maine children and families, including its report on reunification.”


“Their unanimous support today for a set of constructive, solution-oriented recommendations advances our shared goal of improving the child welfare system through both immediate and long-term action,” Hammes said. “We look forward to continued collaboration with the Committee and other partners devoted to child safety as we implement these recommendations.”

The oversight committee has been reviewing the state’s child welfare system for more than two years following the deaths of four children who had contact with the state. The committee has received reports on three of the four deaths, as well as reports on oversight of the child welfare system and the process for investigating abuse and neglect.

Members of the Government Oversight Committee listen during testimony from Bobbi Johnson, acting director of the Office of Children and Family Services, and Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of Maine Department of Health and Human Services, in Augusta on Dec. 6. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Office of Child and Family Services hired a new director last month. And Gov. Janet Mills’ supplemental budget seeks to address staffing shortages and unmanageable workloads by increasing pay and adding new targeted positions, such as legal aides to help caseworkers prepare for court hearings, and trainers to help new employees enter what is a complex and emotionally charged profession.

The report presented Friday focused on the process of reunifying children and their parents, which should only occur after they have engaged with services and corrected any personal behavior that led to the abuse or neglect of a child. The reunification process has been regularly flagged as an area of concern by the state’s independent child welfare ombudsman.

A common theme through the GOC’s review has been the lack of a robust, well-trained workforce. Caseworker vacancies plague the department and increase caseloads for existing workers, who have told lawmakers that they can’t keep up with work demands. And new workers have said they lack adequate training before being sent out into the field.

Vacancy rates among the state’s 182 permanency caseworkers, who focus on family reunification, were 18% statewide, ranging from 42% in the Ellsworth-Machias area and 39% in Lewiston to none in Portland and the Caribou-Houlton areas, according to the report.


OPEGA found that heavy workloads prevent caseworkers from fully engaging with families to assess their needs and provide services that could help parents reunite with their children. There is also a lack of contracted services to ensure parents can have regular supervised visits with their children.

OPEGA said long wait lists for services to treat mental health and substance use issues are also a problem. When services are available, some parents have trouble finding transportation to receive treatment, visit their child or attend court hearings.

Court backlogs are also keeping kids in limbo for extended periods. OPEGA reported that courts will delay hearings if a parent doesn’t have adequate legal representation, while caseworkers cite a lack of support staff to help them file court petitions.

GOC co-Chair Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, said workforce shortages are a problem across state government.

“We just need more people,” she said.

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