Left to right: Bobbi Johnson, Associate Director of Child Welfare Services, Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Briana White, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Maine Attorney General and Tracy Jacques, Coordinator of Guardian Ad Litem Services, State of Maine Judicial Branch, speak at the Maine Child Welfare Conference at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Thursday. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Some of the people who monitor Maine’s child welfare system said they are encouraged by the recent efforts of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to reduce the burden on individual caseworkers and make other changes that will help vulnerable children.

The broader challenges facing the system were not discussed in great detail during an annual conference on child welfare that was held at the Cross Insurance Center on Thursday, drawing about 250 people to Bangor.

Those challenges have included heavy caseloads, low morale and the feeling among caseworkers that they are not supported by their supervisors.

[As new leaders take over Maine’s child welfare system, caseworkers say they’re ‘still drowning’]

But some attendees pointed to meaningful changes that have come since the high-profile deaths of two girls, 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick, set off a series of state investigations and other efforts to protect vulnerable Maine kids.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

The conference came just two days after Shawna Gatto was sentenced to 50 years for the murder of Chick in December 2017.

DHHS has added 100 new workers to its Office of Child and Family Services since October and will be able to hire 62 more with the funding in the new, two-year state budget that takes effect Monday, including 42 new caseworkers, according to Maine DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell.

The additional staff are even more important because of the heightened attention to child abuse, which has driven more people to report suspected cases to the state, according to Dr. Amanda Brownell, a child abuse pediatrician at Spurwink Services.

While heavy caseloads remain a problem, Brownell said, “the hiring of more workers in the last several months, that’s huge.”

Brownell also said she’s heard that the new head of Maine’s office of child and family services, Todd Landry, has been improving the administration’s outreach to people on the ground.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Melissa Hackett, communications and outreach associate at the Maine Children’s Alliance, an advocacy group, likewise praised the recent hiring spree by Maine DHHS and said that it will take time for the new workers to be fully integrated into the system.

“They need to ease the caseload burden but also make sure the new ones are getting training,” she said. “I think they’re making headway, but I think it’s hard for the public to feel patient about it.”

She praised other developments, including a campaign to educate new parents about the dangers of sleeping in the same beds as their babies and the importance of making babies sleep in a crib that’s free of obstructions. Since January 2017, at least eight Maine kids whose families were involved with the state’s child welfare system have died in co-sleeping incidents, according to data released by Maine DHHS this spring.

[More than 20 Maine children have died since 2017 amid concerns about their safety]

For the improvements to continue, Hackett and Brownell both said that the state will need to direct more resources and funding to directly support the families of vulnerable children, such as by increasing their access to health insurance and addiction treatment.

They also said they are encouraged that Maine DHHS has been more transparent about its data and its work than it was under former Gov. Paul LePage’s administration.

“We’re optimistic in a way that we haven’t been for some time,” Hackett said.