Jeanne Lambrew, Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services. Credit: Alex Acquisto | BDN

Though few specifics were offered, state child welfare leaders said Friday they will heed recommendations made recently in a government watchdog report that found Maine’s frontline child welfare caseworkers to be overworked and chronically burdened by heavy, at times unmanageable, workloads.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew told the Government Oversight Committee on Friday that she was “committed to systemic improvements” throughout the Office of Child and Family Services — the department targeted by the report.

“In all areas, we are striving to develop and implement change quickly, while ensuring this work is done thoughtfully, so the changes are sustainable into the future,” Lambrew said.

Since Lambrew was named commissioner, she has vowed to address department inadequacies — including boosting sagging employee morale — and to do so in a transparent manner by, for example, publicizing regular department updates on its website.

Though she praised the report Friday, Lambrew offered few details on clear courses of action the department will pursue as a result, even when prodded by committee members, who said they felt a sense of urgency to expedite these changes.

She did point to improvements the department began making last year as a result of emergency legislation passed under former Gov. Paul LePage, such as the hiring of 39 new staff and the department’s use of a new criminal background check system in York and Cumberland counties.

Committee member and Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, told Lambrew, “I don’t want to be sitting here six months from now … having the same conversation. What is an expedited solution to this problem?”

Lambrew said, “the ideas and the will [are] there. What we’re trying to do is figure out the sequencing, so we’re not doing short-term solutions at the expense of the system.”

This February report is part of a multi-pronged deep dive into Maine’s child welfare system that began last winter, spurred by the high-profile deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick, allegedly at the hands of their parents or guardians. Both had been the subject of referrals to DHHS.

The committee asked OPEGA in March 2018 to investigate those deaths and review work conditions for frontline child welfare workers at the Office of Child and Family Services — the state agency tasked with protecting at-risk children.

In May 2018, the watchdog group released a preliminary report faulting DHHS’ handling of at least one of those cases. The full report was released last month, shortly after the first phase a separate audit assessing OCFS published similar findings.

Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi on Friday called the report “excellent and thorough.” By elevating the perspective of frontline caseworkers, it provides a “huge piece of the puzzle in evaluating what needs to happen next,” in terms of outlining policy changes, she said.

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability’s 46-page report found the majority of child welfare caseworkers polled to be burdened by unsustainable workloads, emotional burnout and insufficient professional supports. Turnover rates are high, and more than 30 percent reported they were actively looking for other jobs — an aspect that Bobbi Johnson, assistant director for OCFS, said the department is trying to resolve.

Many warned that “child safety is at risk and the quality of work is suffering in the current functioning of the child protective system where workers and the system are overwhelmed,” according to the report.