"A complex system": Former Caseworker Sheds Light on DHHS

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MAINE (WABI) - Many questions remain after the death of a 10-year-old Stockton Springs girl.

There are about 1,700 kids each year who die from abuse and neglect in the US, according to the National Children's Alliance.

Caseworkers must balance child safety with parental rights along with the roles of the state and area law enforcement.

We sat down with a former DHHS caseworker to learn more about the system.

"I think every caseworker's worst nightmare is waking up in the morning and finding a headline with the kid that you dealt with yesterday."

Marissa Kennedy's death has sparked public outcry for change, but privacy laws limit the public from truly understanding the role the Department of Health and Human Services plays.

"Unless you have been in that system and have done that work, I think it's incredibly easy to throw stones and incredibly difficult to understand how complex it really is."

Before working for Eastern Maine Medical Center as a family service and support team coordinator, Mark Moran was a DHHS caseworker.

"Knowing the importance of the work that needs to be done and knowing the consequences of making wrong decisions."

Finding that balance starts when reports of suspected abuse enter the Child Protective Services System.

"We're often in homes where people don't want us to be in there. What are the allegations? What's the assessment showing? What can we do by statute?"

According to DHHS, the most common referrals come from school staff. They were responsible for one in five abuse reports received by the department in 2016, followed by law enforcement and medical personnel.

Although the caseworker builds an investigation, the decision to remove a child from a home comes from superiors in the department.

"There are lots of circumstances where there is a high level of concern, a high level of risk, and not always enough evidence to support a more substantial intervention."

"Is that frustrating? Incredibly frustrating."

According to Moran, caseworkers deal with five to seven pending investigations at a given time, often getting a new case every week.

But DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton says their workload is manageable.

"It's an overwhelming job, but no, they're not overwhelmed. Our case load standards are well within the national average of 12 to 15. We have more people on staff now than we did in 2011."

But during Moran's time with the department, he found turnover rates were high.

"The average length of stay for a new caseworker is 18 months. It takes about two years to really learn how to do the job well. And so, if you're gone by 18 months, that doesn't bode well for the level of experience that the staff have."

As the department looks inward at the way things were handled regarding Marissa Kennedy, many questions remain.

"When is it bad enough to intervene?"

Mark Moran is also the chair of a DHHS child death review panel, which will be tasked with investigating the death of Marissa Kennedy.

But we're told in order to do so, all criminal prosecution must be concluded.

An internal review at DHHS is already underway.