Inventory photograph | BDN
By Matthew Stone, BDN Employees •
July 29, 2018 eight:33 am
On nearly each night time since April, youngster welfare caseworkers from the Maine Division of Well being and Human Providers’ South Portland workplace have been required to spend the night time in hotels with youngsters lately eliminated from their mother and father’ homes, in accordance to caseworkers from the workplace.
Beneath division coverage, DHHS assigns two caseworkers per baby to spend the night time.
Typically, caseworkers supply to work the extra time hours, however they often don’t have a selection. They’re all on a “bump list” that dictates when it’s their flip to spend the night time in a lodge — or in a hospital emergency room with a toddler awaiting a psychiatric mattress.
The morning after, they’re anticipated to report for work at eight a.m., the caseworkers stated. In the course of the summer time months, the youngsters who’ve simply spent the night time in a lodge spend their days on the DHHS workplace.
Since mid-April, the South Portland workplace — one among DHHS’ largest, with more than 50 caseworker positions — has been by means of the bump record rotation as soon as and, as of early final week, was more than midway by means of the rotation once more.
“All of us are being tapped to sit in hotels with children who don’t have placements,” a caseworker stated. “That used to be a once-in-a-blue moon thing with children who had specific, extreme difficulties where we couldn’t find a placement.”
As we speak, it’s a snapshot of Maine’s youngster welfare system amid modifications being made by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to prioritize what the governor has referred to as a toddler’s “best interests” over efforts to reunify households concerned in baby welfare instances. Caseworkers who spoke with the Bangor Daily News and up to date inner memos the newspaper obtained present a system overwhelmed by current coverage shifts and growing numbers of youngsters being separated from their mother and father.
In the course of the first 4 months of 2018, as Maine’s youngster welfare system started reacting to the alleged murders of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in February and Four-year-old Kendall Chick in December by their caregivers, the variety of youngsters taken into state custody rose 10 % over the identical interval in 2017 — to 330 from 298, in accordance to DHHS.
DHHS attributes the leap to a spike in the variety of youngster abuse stories following the publicity surrounding the 2 women’ deaths. Caseworkers say a flurry of kid welfare coverage modifications from the LePage administration have additionally led the state to place more youngsters in foster care — regardless of a number of research displaying that, when it’s real looking, youngsters usually fare higher with their mother and father than they might in foster care.
As all of this occurs, foster care placements are more durable to come by.
“How are we doing a good job for these kids, that we’ve removed them from their parents, they’re traumatized, they’re scared, and then we plop them in a hotel? How is that best for them?” the caseworker stated. “And then when we find a placement, it’s not necessarily even a permanent placement, and we’re bouncing them around from respite home to respite home to respite home, trying to find a placement for them.”
On June 6, baby welfare employees acquired a memo from Workplace of Youngster and Household Providers Appearing Director Kirsten Capeless and two different youngster welfare officers instructing them to base all selections on “what is in the child’s best interest.” They have been additionally advised to return to “an emphasis on investigation rather than assessment” when wanting into baby abuse and neglect allegations.
The phrases aren’t outlined in the memo, which caseworkers stated leaves them open to interpretation by more than 300 caseworkers and more than 60 supervisors.
However the announcement of main modifications with little rationalization, and an expectation that they be swiftly carried out, is emblematic of the best way issues function in the Maine company charged with searching for the welfare of youngsters in potential hazard from abusive mother and father, in accordance to the kid welfare staff who spoke with the BDN.
The modifications come down ceaselessly, following no session with frontline employees, the caseworkers stated. They depart staff with more paperwork to full and extra layers of approval to safe earlier than making routine selections, thus delaying them. Then, simply as shortly as a brand new initiative or coverage is deployed, it may well finish.
One outcome is a workforce struggling to sustain with a workload that has grown bigger in the months following Marissa Kennedy’s and Kendall Chick’s deaths — following years throughout which youngster protecting staff had already seen their workloads improve. And, because of division coverage modifications, every case Youngster Protecting Providers takes on now requires more work.
“The way that the department is being run by this administration is very focused on a lot of busy work,” stated a South Portland caseworker, who spoke on the situation of anonymity as a result of baby welfare staff have been informed not to converse with the media. “There’s been a significant increase in the amount of paperwork and deskwork that we are doing now. That really detracts away from the amount of time that we can spend as workers out in the field meeting our children and working with our families. And that’s where I really feel like the ball was dropped.”
One other end result is an company that’s more doubtless to take away youngsters from their mother and father’ homes and place them in foster care.
“The pendulum is definitely swinging toward being more cautious: better to err on the side of, we don’t want to be responsible if something happens, so we’re going to take the quick step so that we can say, if something does happen, ‘We tried,’” stated the caseworker.
As for the time period “child’s best interest” now governing Maine’s strategy to youngster welfare, “everyone comes up with a rationale for why their way of doing things is in the best interest of the child,” stated Jim Beougher, who spent 4 many years working in youngster welfare, together with seven years as director of Maine’s Workplace of Youngster and Household Providers, from 2004 to 2011.
“What it always should be focused on is focusing on the child and asking them what’s in their best interest as part of the whole process, and asking a teacher, a neighbor, a friend,” he stated. “They know more than we should ever assume we know.”
Emily Spencer, a DHHS spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail, “The definition of ‘child’s best interest’ is simple — evaluating the circumstances involved in each case to determine what action is in the best interest of ensuring the child’s safety and security.”
She didn’t clarify the which means of the change from “assessment” to “investigation” that DHHS has required of caseworkers. Beougher stated he’s all the time used the phrases interchangeably.
‘I would be losing my mind’
Because the system has come underneath stress, DHHS coverage and paperwork modifications have added to caseworkers’ workloads and sophisticated the trail for folks to regain custody of their youngsters.
In March, DHHS ordered caseworkers to reopen many lower-severity instances from the earlier six months that the division had assigned to contractors referred to as various response businesses.
[DHHS gives child protective workers more tasks, but not more colleagues]
On June 7, DHHS officers advised baby welfare staff the division was stopping using out-of-home security plans, a more casual, short-term choice caseworkers use in emergencies as an alternative of securing emergency courtroom orders to take away youngsters from their homes. The plans often contain putting youngsters with relations as an alternative of in unknown foster homes — or hotels.
Putting a toddler with a relative “lessens the blow” of a kid’s separation from his or her mother and father, one caseworker stated.
The top of out-of-home security plans has translated into more youngsters spending nights in hotels, stated a second caseworker, additionally based mostly in South Portland.
“Where we normally might be able to avoid taking a child into custody by safety planning them with a relative outside of the home, we’re now taking that child into custody, and we have no foster homes,” she stated.
So as to reunify mother and father and youngsters, Youngster Protecting Providers staff at the moment are required to comply with a brand new, more difficult reunification plan doc. As an alternative of two pages, the brand new authorized doc is eight to 9.
“It’s so difficult to interpret,” a caseworker stated. “Most of our clients have a very low level of functioning, and if we’re having a hard time interpreting it, then it’s a problem, because that’s what they follow to reunify with their children.”
Beneath one other current paperwork change, caseworkers now have to full “child plans” — paperwork with primary biographical and medical details about the youngsters concerned in baby welfare instances — each three months as an alternative of each six months. Solely the caseworker finishing the plan and her supervisor learn the doc, and it consists of info available elsewhere in the case file, a caseworker stated.
Mother and father are “frustrated with us, for good reason,” stated the opposite caseworker. “I sometimes sit at my desk and think, oh my gosh, if I was a parent who had my children removed and was trying so hard to get them back, I would be losing my mind because we’re so hard to get a hold of because we never stop. And I’m sure they feel like they’re just banging their head against a brick wall.”
Well being and Human Providers Commissioner Ricker Hamilton informed lawmakers earlier this month that LePage deliberate to suggest including 75 caseworker positions in Baby Protecting Providers as a part of forthcoming laws to overhaul the kid welfare system.
Throughout testimony earlier than the Legislature’s Authorities Oversight Committee, Hamilton stated he needed to see decrease turnover amongst baby welfare staff.
One of many caseworkers interviewed by the BDN referred to as the proposal for 75 new positions “hilarious.”
“In every single office, there are slots that are empty all the time,” she stated. “So, go ahead, commissioner, give us a million lines. That’s fine, because we can’t keep the slots we have [right now] full.”
Baby Protecting Providers had 21.5 vacant caseworker positions in late June and 326 crammed as of late Might, in accordance to the Workplace of Program Analysis and Authorities Accountability, the Legislature’s investigative arm, which has been wanting into the kid welfare system. The positions stay vacant for 39 days on common.
Up to now month, the caseworkers stated, 9 to 10 baby welfare staff have give up in South Portland. That workplace additionally just lately took over youngster welfare instances in Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, two of the 4 counties the Rockland workplace usually covers, in accordance to the caseworkers and a division memo.
The South Portland workplace is sometimes solely chargeable for Cumberland County, Maine’s most populous. The Rockland workplace was chargeable for the counties the place Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick lived: Waldo and Lincoln counties, respectively.
“The workload has increased immensely, and on top of that, they are just so badly trying to save face, and we are suffering from it so hard,” one of many caseworkers stated.
The June 7 memo that introduced the top of out-of-home security plans additionally stated that DHHS was “exploring options to” contract out some caseworker duties, comparable to lodge stays, in a single day stays in hospital emergency rooms and administrative help.
For now, the lodge stays and paperwork stay caseworker obligations.
In 2004, when Beougher moved from Michigan to Maine to lead the Workplace of Youngster and Household Providers, the state’s youngster welfare system was nonetheless reeling from the 2001 homicide of 5-year-old Logan Marr by her foster mom, Sally Schofield.
Underneath Beougher, Maine’s youngster welfare system decreased the variety of youngsters in foster care, positioned more youngsters eliminated from their mother and father’ care with rigorously vetted kin (referred to as kinship care), and decreased using group foster homes in favor of household homes.
“We had a long history in Maine of separating children not only from their birth parents, but also from their relatives,” Beougher stated. “The outcomes of that were horrendous. And as I talked to children who had aged out of the system after living in care for years, I found that many had gravitated back to their families.”
The division additionally labored to discover everlasting preparations for youngsters — whether or not with their mother and father, with kin or in household foster homes — “in as prompt a manner as possible,” Beougher stated.
Over time, Maine’s baby welfare system got here to be seen as a nationwide mannequin. In 2009, it was a finalist for an improvements award from Harvard’s Kennedy Faculty of Authorities.
“We used to be among the slowest in reunifying children, the slowest in permanent placement,” Beougher stated. “What we talked about is, every child needs permanency in a timeframe that meets their needs. One week, two weeks, three weeks is a long, long time for a child. Even a short separation can be very traumatic.”
Over the course of his baby welfare profession, Beougher stated, he noticed youngster welfare businesses throughout the nation react to high-profile tragedies in unhelpful methods.
“If a system becomes so afraid of making a mistake and the management structure doesn’t account for that, the system can become overwhelmed with investigating reports that aren’t appropriate, removing children who don’t need to be removed, placing children in settings that don’t meet their needs. And systemic tragedies unfold that way,” Beougher stated.
‘The supports they need’
An overwhelmed baby welfare workforce is more probably to expertise larger turnover, in accordance to an evaluation by the U.S. Authorities Accountability Workplace that additionally cited the dimensions of staff’ administrative burdens as a contributor.
For Beougher, the standard of supervision for caseworkers is key to enhancing their retention.
“Workers value a supervisor who actually knows what the work is like, knows how to help them do the job well, and works to get them the supports they need to do their job adequately,” he stated.
Among the many current modifications to baby welfare apply in Maine, the LePage administration has began requiring that caseworkers safe their superiors’ approval earlier than making many routine selections, together with selections about parental visitation and submitting in courtroom for preliminary safety orders that permit DHHS to instantly take away youngsters from unsafe homes.
However caseworkers have restricted entry to their supervisors, they stated, and the numbers of instances make it unrealistic for superiors to log off on each determination that now requires their sign-off. Formally, caseworkers have one-on-one time scheduled with their supervisors as soon as every week. In actuality, the caseworkers stated, as soon as every week often turns into as soon as each two weeks and even more seldom — which may then translate into youngsters in limbo for longer durations.
“The parents’ attorney is saying, ‘Well, everything is going good. We’re hearing all these good things. Let’s increase visitation,’” stated one of many South Portland caseworkers. “And you’re going to have to say, ‘Well, I need to talk to my supervisor next week when we have scheduled supervision because that’s the only time I can have them to myself, and then I’ll get back to you.’”
Maine Focus is a journalism and group engagement initiative on the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to [email protected]
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