The deaths of two young children, Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick, shocked the state into action in the winter of 2017-2018. Marissa was 10 and Kendall just 4 years old.
While both deaths lead to criminal charges, there was also a sense the deaths were at least partly the result of failures by the state’s Child Protective Services system. Legislation and funding to bolster those services followed.
Dean Staffieri, president of Maine State Employees Association, tells Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz that workers have seen an uptick in reported cases this past year. The employees union represents child care workers and Staffieri has also worked in Child Protective Services for years.
Gratz: How have those increased cases affected Child Protective Services workers?
Staffieri: They have gotten busier and busier. We’re very pleased that the state hired 62 workers and supervisors, while at the same time reports have increased dramatically and children coming into care have increased around 31% over the last year and a half or so. It’s sort of like the water coming into the sink and then going down the drain. The work always is increasing. In this supplemental budget, my understanding is that there’s a request for another 20 workers, which again will be helpful.
Is there a pattern to the types of cases Child Protective Services is seeing, anything that perhaps points to a systemic problem that we’re having with people around the state?
I think that the general uptick is related to an awful lot of increased substance abuse and I think we see a lot of domestic violence as well.
In addition to the increase in the number of employees and some other things that have been changed, the Department of Health and Human Services plan has also included a stipend for workers. Can you explain what that does and what effect it may be having?
It was a $5 an hour increase for caseworkers and supervisors that did not have a master’s degree, and those that had a master’s degree received an additional dollar on top of that, so it was $6 an hour. I have a lot of friends that work for the Office of Child and Family Services, and I think at some level it has stemmed a bit of the tide of people leaving. It probably takes the better part of two years of work before you feel, as a caseworker, that you kind of have it figured out. As you can imagine an awful lot of people leave when two years are up.
Has the state made any efforts to help the caseworkers deal with the situations they have to find themselves in?
The state has an employee assistance program that does provide counseling if people find that to be helpful. The state does call in professionals at times when there is a traumatic event like a child death or something similar. And as much training as you might get in college, there’s really nothing that can truly prepare you for what you’re going to be stepping into.
The Department of Health and Human Services also said staff feedback would be better considered following the Chick and Kennedy deaths. Has then happen? Do workers feel they have the ear of higher ups?
I see that improving. I think that we have a ways to go there. I believe that the Legislature in particular has heard concerns. There’s nothing more tragic than children dying. I started working in 1991 for the department and through those years children have been murdered. When that does happen, it brings attention to the department. Certainly for some, they may not appreciate that kind of attention. But I think on the whole, the caseworker staff sees that as an opportunity to learn from possible errors that were made. This administration certainly has been more open to hearing from the concerns of staff, but it’s going to take awhile to get where we think we need to be.
There were also plans to include an upgrade to computer systems at Child Protective Services and some pilot programs, including a background check unit. Have those been implemented, as far as you know?
The background check unit has been in place for awhile. They are working as I understand to get a new child welfare computer system, if you will. Right now they have the Maine Automated Child Welfare Information System, which has been there for a very long time. It’s outlived its expected life. I know that it’s very, very expensive. They’re trying to find a system that’s going to be compatible with Maine and how our laws work and how we do what we do. But that’s not yet in place.
Are there any other things that child protective system caseworkers need to do a better job that at the moment are not in the plans?
They could most assuredly use additional administrative support staff. There’s an incredible amount of paperwork and processes. Over the years, as I’ve seen, administrative support has declined pretty significantly. When you have a strong administrative assistant, it really helps you do a better job of staying on top of things. I think the other thing that we would like to see is more case aids. There’s a report out that suggests that there be one for every eight caseworkers. They help out with supervising visits between children and their parents and locating parents and serving them. They do a lot of work and can save caseworkers enormous amounts of time, so that the caseworker can really be out on the street, being with parents and children, which is really what they want to do and what they need to do.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
According to DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell, the Office of Child and Family Services has been awarded a contract for the creation of a new Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System and expects work to begin on it this spring. Gov. Mills’ proposed supplemental budget includes proposed funding for 20 new positions with the OCFS. Farwell said in an email these additions will build on the 130 staff already added to the department.
The Mills administration has also adopted infrastructural changes like new intake phone systems and medical positions, training opportunities through the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service and strategic priorities based on various agency recommendations.