People gather in Belfast for a candlelight vigil to honor the life of Marissa Kennedy, March 3, 2018. Credit: Emily Burnham

After the deaths of two young girls in recent months, the state’s child welfare system is under review and policies are being revamped. Discussions with frontline workers reveal an agency in disarray with policies being changed without consultation and, worse, without anticipating the consequences.

Gov. Paul LePage has said that the Department of Health and Human Services was too focused on maintaining family cohesion and that a new standard of the “ best interests” of the child should be applied, although DHHS leaders haven’t bothered to define it.

The result is that more children are being removed from their homes. But without enough foster homes available, children are frequently staying in hotels. On nearly every night since April, two caseworkers from the DHHS office in South Portland have been required to spend a night at a hotel with a child who is awaiting placement. Caseworkers have also stayed with children in hospital emergency rooms.

During the first four months of 2018, as Maine’s child welfare system began reacting to the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in February and 4-year-old Kendall Chick in December allegedly at the hands of their caregivers, the number of children taken into state custody rose 10 percent over the same period in 2017, 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 feasible, children generally fare better with their parents than they would in foster care. The state can help parents become more successful with the right services, such as addiction treatment, temporary financial assistance and helping them to identify support networks they can call on during challenging times.

Caseworkers who spoke recently 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.

“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?” a 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.”

Indeed, how is this best for the children?

It is understandable that the department is under stress and seeking to make improvements after Kennedy’s and Chick’s deaths. But lurching from one policy to another without adequate preparation and evidence of their efficacy is not improvement, it is just change.

Other recent changes at DHHS include abandoning a system to empower parents to improve their parenting and other skills and requiring caseworkers to reopen six months’ worth of low-priority cases that had been assigned to private contractors. Caseworkers have also been told to stop the use of “safety plans,” which allowed children to be temporarily placed with a relative rather than obtaining a court order to formally remove them from their homes.

Several weeks ago, LePage said that more caseworkers would be hired at DHHS. Earlier this week, he said more caseworkers weren’t needed — at least in the interim. Instead, current caseworkers would get more training and an outdated computer system would be upgraded. The state should do all three.

LePage used his weekly radio address to blast the state employees’ union for not bringing problems at DHHS meetings to his attention. This accusation comes despite the fact that union representatives and management at DHHS meet regularly to talk about staffing and other issues. As for individual DHHS caseworkers, some supervisors at DHHS have made it clear that speaking out will be punished and the governor tends to lash out at people who are critical of him and his management.

There are plenty of things that need attention at DHHS — staffing levels, paperwork requirements, ever-changing policies and taking children from their families without an adequate alternative. Attention should be focused on these issues, not spreading blame.

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