Report ordered after deaths of 2 girls highlights challenges of child protective caseworkers

Published: Feb. 22, 2019 at 10:04 AM EST
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A report released Friday by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability highlights the challenges facing caseworkers in the Office of Child and Family Services.

The Government Oversight Committee asked OPEGA to survey frontline workers in child protective services after the abuse and deaths of two girls.

Surveys were sent to 252 assessment, permanency and intake caseworkers and 53 supervisors.

The survey found workers face heavy workloads and unpredictable hours, but care about the children in the cases they handle.

"According to workers interviewed by OPEGA, publicity following the two deaths of children by abuse heightened public awareness of child protection matters in late 2017 and early 2018. Workers believed this heightened awareness and in turn resulted in an increase in the number of reports from school personnel, police departments, and community member," the report said.

Many workers said there is a shortage of available placements for children who have been removed from their families, which often results in workers having to spend hours or days with children in hotels or hospital emergency rooms. More than 90 percent of caseworkers said they stayed with a child in an ER or hotel room in the past year.

"A few interviewees told OPEGA about teenagers with high needs who have been removed from parental custody and end up experiencing homelessness due to lack of services and placements," according to the report.

Workers told OPEGA that policy and work practice changes that were implemented after the deaths of two children who were abused had a negative impact. Workers said the changes were made without their input and with little explanation or guidance.

The volume of work increased dramatically in the spring of 2018 because of the changes, workers told OPEGA.

Workers also said the the drug epidemic and a lack of services for families such as mental health treatment, drug treatment and other community resources was increasing their workload and making their jobs harder.

"For very high needs children and children exhibiting certain behaviors (such as violence, fire-setting, or sexualized behaviors) a residential group home may be the most appropriate placement, but interviewees described a lack of this type of facility in Maine. These children will often be placed in facilities far from their home-sometimes even out-of-state," the report said.

The survey said that workers felt the increased workload was a factor in increased staff turnover.

The survey found 40 percent of caseworkers who responded had been in their position for less than two years and 33 percent were looking for a new job.

The report said increased pay and the flexibility to work from home could be ways to alleviate staffing shortages and turnover.

Workers said the increased workload had them concerned they might miss something in one of their cases, leading to another tragedy.