AUGUSTA — Child protection caseworkers say their workloads are too high and their workdays are too long, something they fear is endangering children and leading to burnout and turnover, according to a survey conducted by a state employees union.

Those sentiments were presented Tuesday, Jan. 25, to lawmakers who are weighing reforms in the wake of a number of deaths of Maine children in recent years. The survey of caseworkers was conducted by their union after the Mills administration added more than 70 caseworker positions and increased pay in an effort to improve conditions.

During a briefing Tuesday, the Health and Human Services Committee heard from the state employee union, as well as the children’s ombudsman and the Maine Child Welfare Action Network. The committee is expected to receive another briefing Thursday from the Office of Child and Family Services.

Robin Upton Sukeforth, a field representative with the Maine Service Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989, said she has been holding meetings throughout the state over the last few years and child welfare workers have expressed frustration about “frequent policy changes, unreasonable caseload and unreasonable mandatory overtime.” She said workers have begged the Department of Health and Human Services for overnight staffing to help alleviate overtime, but to no avail.

“Front-line caseworkers feel that no one listens nor cares, and the only solution is to stop working,” Upton Sukeforth said.

The union sent committee members the results of a survey of DHHS caseworkers that suggests working conditions have not improved much since 2018, when a number of workers sounded the alarm about similar pressures on staff. The survey presented Tuesday was conducted in September 2021 amid the fallout of four child deaths within a month of each other.

Murder or manslaughter charges have been filed in three of those cases. In at least one, the death of 3-year-old Maddox Williams in Stockton Springs, the family had prior contact with child protective services, court documents revealed.

The caseworker survey showed that out of 77 responses, nearly 97% of caseworkers expressed concerns about the number of cases they manage, including 36% who were concerned their high caseloads put children in danger and 32% who said workloads were “beyond human capabilities.” Nearly 29% said they had too many cases, but could manage, though it was stressful.

The survey also found that about 80% said they needed to work off-the-clock — through breaks, lunches and before or after hours — to complete paper work at least three times a week, including 39% that did so every day.

Only 20% of the respondents said they have not considered resigning, while roughly 30% consider resigning on daily basis and another 23% consider it on a weekly basis.

Union leaders said they tried unsuccessfully to get the DHHS to stop mandating overtime shifts to cover overnights, weekends and holidays by establishing a dedicated overnight staffing plan during the last round of bargaining. But they said the department would not bargain on that request.

Caseworkers need more support

DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell said Gov. Janet Mills plans to address concerns about child protection staffing on nights and weekends in her supplemental budget.

“The department agrees that further support is needed for child protective caseworkers,” Farwell said in an email Tuesday night. “That’s why since 2019, we have focused on supporting child protective staff by increasing their pay, enhancing training, and securing funding for the 70 new staff positions to improve caseload and workload.

“The department also convened a workgroup of front-line caseworkers in 2020 in recognition of the concerns about night and weekend coverage, which led to several recommendations that the department implemented in 2021.”

Farwell said there are currently 425 caseworker positions, saying the Legislature approved 10 new positions effective Jan. 1 and five more effective July 1. The vacancy rate in child welfare is currently 9%, she said, and the turnover rate was 15.8% in 2020, which is expected to increase because of COVID-19.

Annual starting salary for a caseworker, excluding overtime, is nearly $52,000 and the salary can go as high as $66,144 annually, she said. Farwell said each caseworker has an average of 10.6 cases, not including caseworkers with less than four months experience or those staffing hotlines.

She noted that the 79 caseworkers who responded to the union’s survey represent only 19% of the workforce.

The department is scheduled to give its own briefing to the committee on Thursday, Jan. 26.

As of Tuesday, the state was looking to fill eight child protective caseworker positions with an advertised salary ranging from nearly $28 an hour to nearly $32 an hour, a rate that includes a $5-an-hour recruitment and retention stipend.

The Office of Family and Child Services is required by law to file an annual report on staffing and caseloads, but the report for 2021 is not yet posted. The department had 358 caseworkers in December 2020, which was 42.5 below what was needed. The largest staffing gap was in the Franklin, Oxford and Androscoggin district, which was short 22 of the 76 caseworker positions needed.

Overnight staffing

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, said he supports the concept of adding a dedicated overnight shift, rather than forcing over time. He requested additional information from the union about how many people would be needed and how much it might cost. He also expressed support for adding staff to help ease the current workload of caseworkers, who also are responsible for supervising parental visits and transporting children in state care to appointments.

Meanwhile, the state’s children’s ombudsman and the Maine Child Welfare Action group also presented recommendations to lawmakers.

Ombudsman Christine Alberi said her office, which has one employee besides herself, would need two or three additional employees to keep up with its workload. She said oversight of the Office of Child and Family Services could be improved if there was more collaboration between groups charged with overseeing the program.

Last week, the Legislature’s watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, noted that, in addition to oversight from the federal government and state lawmakers, the office is overseen by the ombudsman, the Maine Domestic Violence Abuse Homicide Review Panel, and a federally mandated panel consisting of the Maine Child Welfare Advisory Panel, Justice for Children Task Force, and Child Death and Serious Injury Review Panel.

However, those panels are not allowed to share with each other any confidential information they receive.

Alberi said her reviews can only highlight what caseworkers could have done to improve outcomes, but she’s not able to figure out why a case was handled in a particular way. Increased collaboration with other panels that have different expertise and insights could help, she said.

“I think there is a gap there,” Alberi said. “I would love to compare notes with them.”

Eyes on prevention

The Maine Child Welfare Action Network, along with Alberi, called for a greater focus on preventing child abuse and neglect. The network, which includes organizations such as Opportunity Alliance, Spurwink, Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine, and the Maine Children’s Alliance, noted that only 15% of state and local funding goes toward preventive services, while nearly half of the funding is spent on out-of-home placements of children.

“We know that poverty is a huge underlying factor in neglect, so if we can ensure that families have the resources to meet their basic needs that takes a big layer of stress off that family to be able to address other challenges going on,” said Melissa Hackett, coordinator of the Maine Child Welfare Action Network and a policy and communications associate at the Maine Children’s Alliance.

The action network said that three-quarters of neglect or emotional abuse cases in 2020 involved an unaddressed mental health or substance use issue of a caretaker.

“You can sometimes see the direct line between a parent being evicted, becoming homeless, losing their car, not going to substance use treatment anymore and their kids entering custody,” Alberi said.

The briefings come as state lawmakers appear eager to take action on child welfare this session, putting in a range of bills to increase legislative oversight, as well as staffing and independence for the ombudsman.

A spokesperson for Mills has said the governor is eying her own slate of reforms and looks forward to working with lawmakers this session. And Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, and Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, the HHS Committee co-chair, have floated their own five-point plan to address child safety by tackling substance use and poverty.

Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, who co-chairs the committee, said the briefings will help guide lawmakers as they consider legislation next month.

“We will be keeping those in mind as we proceed in next month’s hearings to consider specific bills relating to child protections and child welfare,” Claxton said.