© 2024 Maine Public | Registered 501(c)(3) EIN: 22-3171529
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Scroll down to see all available streams.

Nonprofit calls for beefing up 'team approach' to child welfare in Maine

Former state lawmaker Bill Diamond holds up a copy of the report "Unsupported" produced by a group he founded, Walk A Mile In Their Shoes, that examined problems in Maine's child welfare agency.
Kevin Miller
Maine Public
Former state lawmaker Bill Diamond holds up a copy of the report "Unsupported" produced by a group he founded, Walk A Mile In Their Shoes, that examined problems in Maine's child welfare agency.

A new report is calling for Maine's child welfare agency to take a team approach to cases and accuses the state of potentially endangering children by focusing too much on family reunification.

The 32-page report from the nonprofit Walk A Mile In Their Shoes is just the latest in a string of critiques of Maine's child welfare programs, which have been under intense scrutiny in recent years following multiple high-profile child deaths.

Leaders of Walk A Mile In Their Shoes said they gathered feedback from frontline caseworkers, foster parents, law enforcement and others who interact with Maine's child welfare system over the course of nine months. Their report, which was released Tuesday during a State House press conference, echoes concerns that have come up repeatedly during legislative investigations into the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

"What we learned is that many stakeholders are woefully under-supported by the current system, resulting in multiple problems that ultimately affect the safety and wellbeing of children," reads the report's introduction. "These insights offer practical solutions, backed up by real-life experiences, to these problems, which have only gotten worse over the past few years."

The report accuses the Office of Child and Family Services of "excessive focus" on reuniting children with their biological parents, even when those parents have a history of abuse and neglect. The report says protecting children should take precedence over parental rights. And it calls for parents to complete random drug tests to regain custody — and that DHHS should treat a parent's refusal to submit to testing the same as a failed test result.

DHHS has added dozens of additional caseworkers and managers in recent years with funding from the Legislature. Previous and current investigations by lawmakers have shown those positions have helped, but only to a point because the department has struggled to fill the positions and to retain staff. Frontline staff have testified that they are overburdened with cases and often spend nights in hospitals or hotel rooms with children only to have to return to work the next morning.

Bill Diamond, a former longtime state lawmaker from Windham who founded Walk A Mile In Their Shoes, said their conversations with workers show the agency also needs more case aides to complete the mountains of paperwork, more clinicians to evaluate children and more paralegals to help caseworkers file court petitions.

"Every case should have a team approach and people have told us that up and down the state," Diamond told reporters. "No longer can we rely or expect one caseworker to go in and do all of the work that they do, especially when they have an overload of 30 or 40 cases when they should have 12."

Melanie Blair, a foster and adoptive parent who participated in many of the listening sessions with caseworkers, said she saw common threads between their experiences and her family's.

"Poor leadership, a toxic environment, abusive and bullying relationships," Blair said. "A lack of honest communication and follow-through, inconsistent policy and practice, failure to follow existing policy and a disregard of reported concerns have brought us where we are today."

Diamond also said that foster families often feel unsupported and are forced to wait unacceptably long periods for reimbursement from DHHS. He said many also fear retribution if they complain to the department. As a result, Diamond says many foster families are telling him they plan to leave the system.

"And that sends a signal that this an area equally as important as caseworkers because they play an equally important role," Diamond said.

State lawmakers are nearing the end of a more than year-long investigation into DHHS's involvement in the lives of four children who died from abuse during one month in 2021. That investigation, which is being conducted by the Legislature's independent watchdog agency, has found that many caseworkers continue to juggle two to three times as many cases as they should. Caseworkers have also described the atmosphere within the Office of Child and Family Services as "toxic" and a "war zone."

The program's director resigned last month. But there appears to be growing support for creating a stand-alone child welfare agency outside of DHHS.

While that wasn't a formal recommendations from Walk A Mile In Their Shoes, Diamond supports the idea — as does Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce.

"The Maine Department of Health and Human Services' mission, in my opinion, is too broad," Joyce said. "It's imperative to refine the expectations and responsibilities of DHHS for the safety of children."

DHHS did not make anyone available for an interview on Tuesday. But in statement, Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and acting director of Child and Family Services, Bobbi Johnson say they look forward to reviewing the latest report. The pair said hiring a new director creates a new opportunity to "reset and improve" the culture within the program.

"We are committed to improving team support, training, mentorship, and communication for caseworkers, along with better pathways for caseworkers to offer ideas or criticisms," Lambrew and Johnson said in the joint statement. "We are also working on addressing payments to Maine's resource (foster) families, who are an important and valued part of the child welfare system. In addition to this report, we also look forward to reviewing the recommendations of the Legislature. We agree that the child welfare system needs to be strengthened and problems need to be fixed, and we pledge to continue to engage with partners in this critical work."