- Associated Press - Friday, February 22, 2019

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Child welfare caseworkers in Maine have faced a “dramatic and sudden” spike in their workload, poorly explained policy changes, and an ongoing shortage of placements for children in the year following the deaths of two young girls from alleged child abuse, according to a review released Friday.

The Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability said that more flexibility, training and administrative support and improved technology could boost Maine’s beleaguered child welfare system. Meanwhile, rising drug abuse in the state and a lack of mental health, drug treatment and other services is “increasing and complicating child protective efforts,” according to the legislative watchdog.

The watchdog’s recommendations mirror other reports and calls from lawmakers and caseworkers over the past year following the deaths of 4-year-old Kendall Chick and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy. Kendall died of blunt force trauma to the abdomen in 2017, and the fiance of her grandfather has pleaded not guilty in her death. Marissa’s mother and stepfather have pleaded not guilty in her 2018 death, but investigators have said they acknowledged taking turns beating the girl before her death.

The watchdog’s latest survey follows its 2018 report that cited poor job performance and lack of supervision by Maine’s child welfare agency in the death of one of the abused children, who was not specified.

The legislative watchdog surveyed all state caseworkers and supervisors and conducted in-depth interviews with 44 randomly selected staffers.

“(W)e will take as many immediate, evidence-based actions as possible to ensure child safety, worker safety, and prevention of abuse and neglect in the first place,” new Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a statement.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ administration is conducting a national search for a new director to lead the Office of Child and Family Services.

Last spring, caseworkers began to face increasingly overwhelming caseloads amid sudden policy changes within the state Department of Health and Human Services and publicity surrounding the deaths of the two girls.

The watchdog’s survey says it appears such increases in caseloads appear to be stabilizing in some, but not all districts.

Staff also told the watchdog that the state’s last-resort policy of keeping some children in hotels and emergency rooms is traumatic for both children and caseworkers. The watchdog’s survey found that 91 percent of 141 surveyed caseworkers said they were asked to “stay with a child in the emergency room, hotel or other overnight setting.”

Another recently released report by the Boston-based Public Consulting Group found that Maine must boost its training, adjust caseloads and staffing ratios, and improve its technology to better serve children and families.

That report found a live person answered only two-thirds of roughly 6,100 calls to the welfare hotline from January through October 2018.

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