AP NEWS

Workers hired, still more needed to protect Maine children

February 25, 2020 GMT

BANGOR, Maine (AP) — Two years after the death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy, the state still has too few caseworkers to keep pace with the volume of open child welfare cases and incoming referrals.

The state hired 33 caseworkers last fall, increasing the workforce by 10% over the previous December. But many have finished their training only recently, and the state is still short by 40 caseworkers, according to the results of a state “workload analytic tool” released Jan. 31, the Bangor Daily News reported. The tool determines staffing needs based on the volume of cases and other factors.

“We would need additional caseworkers, additional staff to handle the amount of workload that we currently have with the number of calls, assessments and children in care. That’s clearly what the analytic tool shows,” said Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Gov. Janet Mills’ supplemental budget, which needs legislative approval, would add half that number of positions, 20 caseworkers.

The deaths of Marissa Kennedy and another girl, 4-year-old Kendall Chick, exposed gaps in Maine’s child welfare system and prompted outrage.

On Friday, Marissa’s mother was sentenced to 48 years in prison for beatings that led to her death. Julio Carrillo, Marissa’s stepfather, is serving a 55-year sentence for his role. The girl died Feb. 25, 2018, in Stockton Springs.

Caregiver Shawna Gatto was sentenced to 50 years last year for the death of Kendall on Dec. 8, 2017, in Wiscasset.

In both cases, the Office of Child and Family Services failed to check in with the families or heed warnings of potential abuse. The agency received 25 reports about Marissa Kennedy and her family in the 16 months before her death, the agency reported.

There have been reforms since then. All told, the Mills administration and the Maine Legislature have added more than 130 staff, including the additional caseworkers, to the Office of Child and Family Services since January 2019, the Mills administration said.

“Our greatest responsibility is to protect our children,” Mills said, and her administration will continue to make “critical changes” to the state’s child welfare system.

It takes time to turn around a complicated system and train dozens of new workers hired since the tragedies, said Pamela Day, of Portland, a former director of child welfare services and standards for the Child Welfare League of America, who’s familiar with Maine’s system.

“I would say it will take several years to turn this around. We had eight years of just a starving beast,” she said.