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EDITORIAL: Maine's child welfare system needs meaningful change

Bangor Daily News - 12/7/2023

Dec. 7—The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

The problems within Maine's beleaguered child welfare system are vexingly complex yet deceptively simple. They are simple because it is clear that Maine needs to do a better job of protecting children from harm.

On a large scale, that is done, in part, by ensuring that the supports families need — such as affordable housing, stable jobs, health care, transportation — are readily available and accessible. Providing these supports has been difficult, as evidenced by Maine's growing homeless population and increasing housing unaffordability, coupled with persistent gaps in access to health care and other needed services.

More specifically, Maine's child welfare system is overworked and understaffed. On Wednesday, members of the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee grilled Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, about what is being done to alleviate caseworker shortages that are leading to exasperation among these vital workers and, more dangerously, sometimes contributing to dangerous situations for Maine children.

In her responses, Lambrew shared her frustration with and concern for the ongoing problems with the department's Office of Child and Family Services.

"I also share your frustration," Lambrew told the committee. "Performance on some key child welfare metrics has worsened. Staff vacancy rates have risen. It is important to acknowledge that."

It was the first time we have publicly heard the commissioner so directly acknowledge that the department, while helping thousands of families and children each year, is falling short in some significant respects, including an unacceptably high number of child deaths in recent years.

"This committee's focus on children who died at the hands of their caregivers has been heart wrenching. Every one of these deaths is a tragedy," Lambrew told lawmakers. "Each child lost their chance at a future, and each family has a hole in it that will never fill. We mourn their loss. I mourn their loss. And I ask myself and lose sleep over the question: could each child have survived if something different had been done within the child welfare system?"

That is a question that must drive decisions about Maine's child welfare system, including the large question of who will oversee the department's Office of Child and Family Services. Director Todd Landry resigned abruptly last month and a national search has been launched for his replacement.

Lambrew stressed that a new director must be guided by empathy while also strongly focused on improving the culture within the office. Numerous reports and testimony to the Government Oversight Committee have highlighted the unbearable workload that many caseworkers carry. This too often leaves caseworkers with inadequate time to fully engage with families and to assess potential risks to children.

A shortage of caseworkers is a persistent problem. Nearly a third of positions with the child protective services are currently vacant. It is hard to recruit qualified people for these jobs when the pay is often lower than what they can receive in the private sector and when the hours may be unattractive.

To begin to address some of these issues, more money has been directed to child welfare and the department has added positions and compensation is currently being negotiated with the state's public employees union. It has also restructured some child protective work to create teams with more supports for caseworkers, who are typically the frontline contacts with families and children. There is also more effort to identify barriers that may make it hard to help children who are at risk for maltreatment.

These efforts are promising. But they, and Lambrew's expressed frustration, won't immediately solve the persistent problems in Maine's child welfare system.

Lambrew made this clear in her remarks to lawmakers while discussing changes that have already been made: "But those changes, while good, are not keeping pace with persistent problems and new challenges facing Maine children and families, such as the epidemic of substance use disorders and economic instability precipitated by high costs and a difficult economy for many."

Like lawmakers, we certainly don't have all the answers about how to make more meaningful changes. But we know that when the state's child maltreatment rate continues to rise and when caseworkers continue to report being overwhelmed and overworked, "something different" needs to be done.

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