On virtually every night since April, child welfare caseworkers from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ South Portland office have been required to spend the night in hotels with children recently removed from their parents’ homes, according to caseworkers from the office.
Under department policy, DHHS assigns two caseworkers per child to spend the night.
Sometimes, caseworkers offer to work the overtime hours, but they often don’t have a choice. They’re all on a “bump list” that dictates when it’s their turn to spend the night in a hotel — or in a hospital emergency room with a child awaiting a psychiatric bed.
The morning after, they’re expected to report for work at 8 a.m., the caseworkers said. During the summer months, the children who have just spent the night in a hotel spend their days at the DHHS office.
Since mid-April, the South Portland office — one of DHHS’ largest, with more than 50 caseworker positions — has been through the bump list rotation once and, as of early last week, was more than halfway through the rotation again.
“All of us are being tapped to sit in hotels with children who don’t have placements,” a caseworker said. “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.”
Today, it’s a snapshot of Maine’s child welfare system amid changes being made by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to prioritize what the governor has called a child’s “best interests” over efforts to reunify families involved in child welfare cases. Caseworkers who spoke with the Bangor Daily News and recent internal memos the newspaper obtained show a system overwhelmed by recent policy shifts and increasing numbers of children being separated from their parents.
During the first four months of 2018, as Maine’s child welfare system began reacting to the alleged murders of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in February and 4-year-old Kendall Chick in December by their caregivers, the number of children taken into state custody rose 10 percent over the same period in 2017 — to 330 from 298, according to DHHS.
DHHS attributes the jump to a spike in the number of child abuse reports following the publicity surrounding the two girls’ deaths. Caseworkers say a flurry of child welfare policy changes from the LePage administration have also led the state to place more children in foster care — despite multiple studies showing that, when it’s realistic, children generally fare better with their parents than they would in foster care.
As all of this happens, foster care placements are harder 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 said. “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, child welfare staff received a memo from Office of Child and Family Services Acting Director Kirsten Capeless and two other child welfare officials instructing them to base all decisions on “what is in the child’s best interest.” They were also told to return to “an emphasis on investigation rather than assessment” when looking into child abuse and neglect allegations.
The terms aren’t defined in the memo, which caseworkers said leaves them open to interpretation by more than 300 caseworkers and more than 60 supervisors.
But the announcement of major changes with little explanation, and an expectation that they be swiftly implemented, is emblematic of the way things operate in the Maine agency charged with looking out for the welfare of children in potential danger from abusive parents, according to the child welfare workers who spoke with the BDN.
The changes come down frequently, following no consultation with frontline staff, the caseworkers said. They leave workers with more paperwork to complete and additional layers of approval to secure before making routine decisions, thus delaying them. Then, just as quickly as a new initiative or policy is deployed, it can end.
One result is a workforce struggling to keep up with a workload that has grown larger in the months following Marissa Kennedy’s and Kendall Chick’s deaths — following years during which child protective workers had already seen their workloads increase. And, as a result of department policy changes, each case Child Protective Services 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,” said a South Portland caseworker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because child welfare workers have been told not to speak 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.”
Another result is an agency that’s more likely to remove children from their parents’ 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,’” said the caseworker.
As for the term “child’s best interest” now governing Maine’s approach to child welfare, “everyone comes up with a rationale for why their way of doing things is in the best interest of the child,” said Jim Beougher, who spent four decades working in child welfare, including seven years as director of Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services, 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 said. “They know more than we should ever assume we know.”
Emily Spencer, a DHHS spokeswoman, wrote in an email, “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 explain the meaning of the change from “assessment” to “investigation” that DHHS has required of caseworkers. Beougher said he’s always used the terms interchangeably.
‘I would be losing my mind’
As the system has come under stress, DHHS policy and paperwork changes have added to caseworkers’ workloads and complicated the path for parents to regain custody of their children.
In March, DHHS ordered caseworkers to reopen many lower-severity cases from the previous six months that the department had assigned to contractors known as alternative response agencies.
On June 7, DHHS officials told child welfare workers the department was stopping the use of out-of-home safety plans, a more informal, temporary option caseworkers use in emergencies instead of securing emergency court orders to remove children from their homes. The plans often involve placing children with relatives instead of in unknown foster homes — or hotels.
Placing a child with a relative “lessens the blow” of a child’s separation from his or her parents, one caseworker said.
The end of out-of-home safety plans has translated into more children spending nights in hotels, said a second caseworker, also based 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 said.
In order to reunify parents and children, Child Protective Services workers are now required to follow a new, more complicated reunification plan document. Instead of two pages, the new legal document is eight to nine.
“It’s so difficult to interpret,” a caseworker said. “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.”
Under another recent paperwork change, caseworkers now have to complete “child plans” — documents with basic biographical and medical information about the children involved in child welfare cases — every three months instead of every six months. Only the caseworker completing the plan and her supervisor read the document, and it includes information readily available elsewhere in the case file, a caseworker said.
Parents are “frustrated with us, for good reason,” said the other 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.”
Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton told lawmakers earlier this month that LePage planned to propose adding 75 caseworker positions in Child Protective Services as part of forthcoming legislation to overhaul the child welfare system.
During testimony before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, Hamilton said he wanted to see lower turnover among child welfare workers.
One of the caseworkers interviewed by the BDN called the proposal for 75 new positions “hilarious.”
“In every single office, there are slots that are empty all the time,” she said. “So, go ahead, commissioner, give us a million lines. That’s fine, because we can’t keep the slots we have [right now] full.”
Child Protective Services had 21.5 vacant caseworker positions in late June and 326 filled as of late May, according to the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the Legislature’s investigative arm, which has been looking into the child welfare system. The positions stay vacant for 39 days on average.
In the past month, the caseworkers said, nine to 10 child welfare workers have quit in South Portland. That office also recently took over child welfare cases in Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, two of the four counties the Rockland office normally covers, according to the caseworkers and a department memo.
The South Portland office is typically only responsible for Cumberland County, Maine’s most populous. The Rockland office was responsible for the counties where 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 the caseworkers said.
The June 7 memo that announced the end of out-of-home safety plans also said that DHHS was “exploring options to” contract out some caseworker responsibilities, such as hotel stays, overnight stays in hospital emergency rooms and administrative support.
For now, the hotel stays and paperwork remain caseworker responsibilities.
In 2004, when Beougher moved from Michigan to Maine to lead the Office of Child and Family Services, the state’s child welfare system was still reeling from the 2001 murder of 5-year-old Logan Marr by her foster mother, Sally Schofield.
Under Beougher, Maine’s child welfare system reduced the number of children in foster care, placed more children removed from their parents’ care with carefully vetted relatives (known as kinship care), and reduced the use of group foster homes in favor of family homes.
“We had a long history in Maine of separating children not only from their birth parents, but also from their relatives,” Beougher said. “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 department also worked to find permanent arrangements for children — whether with their parents, with relatives or in family foster homes — “in as prompt a manner as possible,” Beougher said.
“We used to be among the slowest in reunifying children, the slowest in permanent placement,” Beougher said. “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 child welfare career, Beougher said, he saw child welfare agencies across the country react to high-profile tragedies in unhelpful ways.
“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 said.
‘The supports they need’
An overwhelmed child welfare workforce is more likely to experience higher turnover, according to an analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that also cited the size of workers’ administrative burdens as a contributor.
For Beougher, the quality of supervision for caseworkers is key to improving 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 said.
Among the recent changes to child welfare practice in Maine, the LePage administration has started requiring that caseworkers secure their superiors’ approval before making many routine decisions, including decisions about parental visitation and filing in court for preliminary protection orders that allow DHHS to immediately remove children from unsafe homes.
But caseworkers have limited access to their supervisors, they said, and the numbers of cases make it unrealistic for superiors to sign off on every decision that now requires their sign-off. Officially, caseworkers have one-on-one time scheduled with their supervisors once a week. In reality, the caseworkers said, once a week often becomes once every two weeks or even more seldom — which can then translate into children in limbo for longer periods.
“The parents’ attorney is saying, ‘Well, everything is going good. We’re hearing all these good things. Let’s increase visitation,’” said one of the 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 community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.