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DHHS Commissioner Outlines Plan To Improve Child Protective Services

BDN - File

State officials told members of the legislature's Government Oversight Committee Friday that improvements to the child protective system are underway. The panel held a public hearing on the latest report following the abuse deaths of two girls last winter, which details a number of concerns raised by caseworkers. Some lawmakers and citizens say they want more to be done, and soon.

According to the report, the top concerns reported include large caseloads and a shortage of foster placements, which means caseworkers often spend hours or days with children in hotels and emergency rooms. Child protective workers are also frustrated that changes in protective services were made without their input in the wake of the deaths of two girls.

The new commissioner of Maine's Department of Health and Human Services, Jeanne Lambrew, assured the Government Oversight Committee that staff feedback is now considered.

"Their perspective and ideas for improvement are vital to ensuring that the recommendations we implement are grounded in the day to day realities of this challenging work," Lambrew says.

Lambrew says some improvements are underway, such as a hiring-campaign that is filled more than 100 vacancies. A new Background Check Unit is being piloted to help caseworkers make assessments of individuals. Another pilot program, due to roll out this summer, would provide more parent coaching during home visits.

And, Lambrew says, the 20-year-old computer system that tracks child welfare cases will get an upgrade.

"We expect to publish a Request for Proposal, or RFP, this summer," she says.

But that timeline does not sit well with Democratic State Senator Nate Libby.

"We appropriated $8 million last fall for this new system, and we're at March now,” Libby says. “And what we're hearing is an RFP is not going out till the summer. Bids are not going to come back until some months later. Procurement is not going to happen for some months later. There's a sense of urgency among the folks on this committee who've been hearing about these problems for almost a year now. I think we'd like to see that timeline expedited."

Some foster parents testified at the hearing that despite changes and new leadership at DHHS, their concerns about children’s safety have not been allayed. The state's system to protect children is under intense scrutiny following the abuse deaths of four-year-old Kendall Chick and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy.

Former caseworker Shawn Yardley, now a board member of the Maine Children's Alliance, says the problems in child protective services go back decades.

"One of the things I often said when I was doing the work was that I wasn't surprised that children die. I was surprised that more didn't,” Yardley says.

Yardley says funding to support child protective services tends to wax and wane depending on when a tragedy strikes. He urged lawmakers to ensure stable funding for the long term.

Others at the hearing said the state is overlooking readily available solutions for children who need placement in other homes. Some advocated for more support for what's called “kinship care,” in which a child is placed with a relative.

Chris Bicknell says he doesn't understand why the temporary housing for teens he oversees at New Beginnings in Lewiston isn't used more frequently or expanded.

"If there were three or four small, residential, congregate care programs across the state that could house young people who are waiting for foster placement that were staffed and had programming that helped these young people prepare for moving on into adulthood, that would be an amazing option for young people," Bicknell says.

Commissioner Lambrew told the Committee that she's combing through the dozens of recommendations made in several reports to improve child protective services. The Committee asked her to return when she's finished to brief lawmakers on the next actions they should take.