Lawmaker calls lack of placements for kids ‘shocking’
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Lawmakers are calling for answers on the state’s troubled child welfare system and asking the public to weigh in.
The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee is set to hold a March 8 public hearing on a legislative watchdog’s recent survey of child protective caseworkers across Maine.
The survey found caseworkers are reporting having faced a “dramatic and sudden” spike in their workload since the deaths of two young girls from alleged child abuse.
The watchdog’s survey also 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.”
Government Oversight Committee Senate Chair Justin Chenette, a Democrat, called that figure “shocking” and a “major red flag” that could be a future focus for the committee.
“What staff have indicated is that whether it’s staying at an ER, a hotel, or even at the office, these caseworkers are having to basically on a whim disrupt their own lives to try to take care of these children because there’s no place for them to go,” Chenette said.
Chenette said the apparent lack of sufficient foster family placements and residential group home placements is continuing to impact young people who have already faced the “trauma” of being removed from their families.
Republican Sen. Jeffrey Timberlake, a ranking minority member of the Government Oversight Committee, said the watchdog’s survey was concerning to both parties and that it’s now time to find solutions.
“Under no circumstances can we afford to have another child die,” Timberlake said.
The March 8 hearing is expected to include updates from representatives of the Department of Health and Human Services on efforts to improve the child welfare system, according to Chenette.
That includes an 11th-hour, $21.2 million reform package passed last August.
The Legislature approved $8 million to replace an outdated computer information system, $3.7 million in raises for caseworkers, $2.6 million in pay increases for foster families and funding for 16 new caseworker positions.
“I think the consistent thing you hear over and over and over again is the amount of hours asked to be worked by the employees and sometimes they’re not being paid,” Timberlake said.
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. In May, the same watchdog cited poor job performance and lack of supervision by a state child welfare agency in the death of an abused child, who was not identified.
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.
“Hopefully we’re going to be able to see where we still need to be making improvements to ultimately help at-risk-youth,” Chenette said. “Children have been traumatized enough, particularly in tough situations.”