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After the deaths of four young children in June, Maine lawmakers have again turned their attention to the state’s child welfare system. The inclination to “fix” the system is well placed. Finding that fix, however, is no easy task.
“Solving Maine’s child welfare system issues may be Legislature’s hardest problem,” a BDN headline proclaimed last week.
“Any problems will not be simply solved with more boards or regulatory regimes, which are often lawmakers’ first instinct,” BDN politics editor Michael Shepherd wrote. “That is why this may be the hardest problem facing the Maine Legislature right now.”
Meaningful change is most likely to come from the people who work daily to protect the wellbeing of the children and families that come into contact with the state’s social welfare agency: the caseworkers. Despite years of hiring more staff, improving training, clarifying expectations and updating record keeping, it appears the child welfare caseworkers are still struggling.
A survey of child welfare caseworkers, presented to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee last week, found that these employees of the state Department of Health and Human Services felt overwhelmed. They nearly universally said they had too many cases to manage and nearly a third worried that the high caseloads put children in danger. Eighty percent said they needed to put in extra, unpaid time to complete paperwork at least three times a week; 39 percent said they had to do so every day.
Many frequently thought about quitting their jobs.
Meanwhile, 2021 was the most deadly year on record for Maine children. Twenty-five children died last year in incidents that were tracked by the state and associated with abuse, neglect or after a history of family involvement with the child welfare system, according to data released by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services last week. That’s more than double in 2020.
Certainly the COVID-19 pandemic, with its isolation and disruptions to work and school, added to family stress. But, that is unlikely the entire reason for this troubling increase.
We won’t pretend that there are simple answers to this problem, but lawmakers should focus much of their attention on caseworkers and the challenges they continue to report.
The Department of Health and Human Services pointed out that the 77 case workers who responded to the union survey represent a small fraction of the nearly 400 child welfare caseworkers employed by the department. This may be true, but the survey results are alarming.
Despite the Mills administration hiring 70 additional caseworkers in recent years, there are not enough of them, according to a recent workload assessment conducted by the department, which found that 33 more are needed. The shortage is especially acute in Franklin County, where 13 additional caseworkers are needed to meet state benchmarks.
Turnover among caseworkers has also dropped, but too many open positions remain unfilled.
The department has taken steps to improve working conditions – by increasing training and support, reducing workloads, improving record keeping and sharing, which should help identify high-risk living situations more quickly. Yet, it is still hard to maintain the needed number of caseworkers.
“Even with these improvements and additions, the department agrees that further support is needed to child protective workers and staff,” Todd Landry, the director of the Office of Child and Family Services told the Health and Human Services Committee last week.
That leaves another option – pay them more. The starting salary for a caseworker in the Office of Child and Family Services is about $52,000 a year. The highest caseworker salary is about $66,000. That may sound high to some, but consider that these caseworkers are called in to potentially life-altering decisions for children and parents.
Like many other fields in Maine where workers are hard to find – nursing homes, schools and childcare centers come to mind – higher wages need to be part of the solution to attracting and retaining workers.
Department officials say that Gov. Janet Mills will include provisions in her supplemental budget proposal to help caseworkers deal with weekend and overnight responsibilities. That’s important, but addressing the overall caseworker shortage – and improving their worker conditions – remains vital for the health and wellbeing of Maine’s most vulnerable children.