Protecting the children: Part 2

Published: Feb. 26, 2020 at 6:23 PM EST
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Making changes.

That's what the Maine Department of Health and Human Services says they've been doing over the past two years.

We first told you, in Part 1, about a report by a child services watchdog that cited several issues with the department.

All eyes have been on DHHS over the past several years after the deaths of two young girls.

DHHS says they have worked with lawmakers and others to bolster the system and make it better.

Their ultimate goal, to keep tragedies like these from happening again.

Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi highlighted several issues in the department but says overall changes made are making a difference.

She says, “The report does highlight some issues that continue to be a problem, but I will say that overall, the department, the transparency in the department in communicating about issues that exist in child welfare and what the department is doing to improve child welfare, that has been a huge improvement over the last couple of years.”

Director of Child and Family Services Todd Landry says, "We have open discussions about what she is seeing in some of the reports and some of the cases that she's looking at. The purpose of this is continuous improvement. Let's learn from every case that we have. Let's see what went well, let's see what we can improve upon because that's ultimately where we're going, and we are all headed in the same direction."

Landry has only been with the department for about nine months.

He says, "A number of changes have already been made and many more are still to come."

Those changes include hiring 33 new caseworkers this fall, increasing the workforce by 10 percent over the previous December.

Many have just completed their training.

Landry says, "The additional case workers has helped tremendously to reduce the case loads and the work loads across the state, and what that translates to is more time with children and families."

But according to the results of a state "workload analytic tool" released last month, the state is still short 40 caseworkers.

Alberi says, "There's still a lot of turn-over. So, all of those case-worker lines are not necessarily filled, even if they are in existence to be filled. And the other issue that comes up just in terms of time in getting everyone up to speed, is that there are also new supervisors that are being hired which is necessary but that means that experienced case-workers are being taken off of the case-worker job and being put into the supervisor position. So, that decreases the overall experience of the case workers in general."

Governor Mills announced in her State of the State address she would ask the legislature to add half that number of positions, 20 caseworkers.

DHHS is also partnering with the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service to update department training programs.

Landry says, "Part of the job of the Muskie School is to leverage their expertise both locally as well as nationally around how do we make sure that on-boarding training for our staff is the best that it can be, how do we use current technology to assist our staff that are in the field with ongoing training and support."

The deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs and 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset at the hands of their parents and caretakers shocked Mainers.

Alberi says this sparked a surge of suspected abuse calls.

Landry admits while that influx of calls was a strain on the department, upgrades to their intake system are helping.

He says, "We've seen a dramatic increase in the number of calls answered live, well over 80 percent on an ongoing basis and a decrease in the number of abandoned calls or hang ups. We've put in place a lot of those pieces because we recognize that intake process is essentially the front door to our system, and we want to make sure that people are able to give us the information that is needed when they have suspicions of abuse and neglect."

There are many other changes being made both department wide and legislatively to ensure the safety of children.

But Landry says they won't all come quickly, "It is going to take some time for us to see the full impact of this, but I think we are already seeing positive signs at the front end."

Alberi says, "As you know the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy have caused the entire state to focus on child welfare and in a very helpful way. I do worry that once more time goes by that we are going to lose that focus and I want to make sure that everyone understands that there are always going to be kids that need our help in any time going forward."

Landry tells me that one of the things he's recognized in this report and others is that the department needs to work on regaining trust.

He says transparency is a big part of that.

In September, DHHS rolled out a number of measures and is publicly reporting their results to neighbors and communities on their website.