Editorial, July 5, 2018

By Portland Press Herald editorial board | Jul 05, 2018

DHHS dodges tough questions on child welfare

There are a lot of questions Ricker Hamilton could have answered last week at a meeting of the Government Oversight Committee, if only Gov. Paul LePage had allowed it.

Hamilton, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, was set to appear before the committee to talk about the state’s child welfare system. Two young girls — Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs and Kendall Chick of Wiscassett — are dead, both allegedly at the hands of their caregivers, and both reportedly had some contact with Child Protective Services.

It’s the committee’s goal to find the weaknesses in the system that may have contributed to those deaths — and put other children at risk — and to draft legislation to fix them. It is an urgent matter; lawmakers hope to address the legislation during an upcoming special session.

Hamilton’s input is crucial to that process, lawmakers say. But his chair sat empty as lawmakers checked their watches.

Later, in a statement, LePage said he could not risk having Hamilton reveal information about the girls’ deaths that could compromise the ongoing criminal investigation. He added he didn’t want lawmakers to use the occasion to “grandstand” in an election year.

Maybe he just didn’t like the questions that Hamilton was sure to face.

Many of the questions certainly would have centered around the increasing workload placed upon child protective workers during the LePage administration.

The pressure on the system has been enormous — caseloads have increased 50 percent since last decade, the number of reports rose 31 percent between 2008 and 2016, and the number of kids in state care has increased 40 percent since 2011.

And while LePage briefly mentioned worker burnout among a list of problems identified within the system, he hasn’t proposed adding any capacity. In fact, since the deaths, he’s gone in the opposite direction.

In the wake of the children’s deaths, the governor refused to reverse a decision to end an effective program that works with families of children at risk of abuse or neglect. He then vetoed a bill designed to stop this error in judgment.

At the same time, he changed how the state handles cases where the risk of future abuse or neglect is considered low, adding more work for the already harried caseworkers.

The change altered a two-decade-old system known as alternative response. In cases where intensive state oversight is deemed unnecessary, families are instead sent a representative from a regional alternative response provider, who works with the family to make the home safer and establish a support system.

It is a voluntary and collaborative process that stands in contrast to use of child protective workers, who have the power to remove children from the home.

However, according to the Bangor Daily News, the state is now reopening cases sent to alternative response dating back to Aug. 31, 2017, asking the providers to forward cases to caseworkers if they can’t contact the family involved, and to do the same with new cases moving forward.

It is an open question whether this change makes it more likely an abused child will be noticed — a national child protection advocate told the BDN it was a “broad-brush, cover-my-ass approach.”

What is certain is that the new policy is sending more work to caseworkers, whose caseload jumped from 47 completed investigations each in 2010 to 73 in 2016. It’s sending more calls to the child abuse hotline, which in 2016 didn’t answer 12,000 calls, or 22 percent of the total, on the first try.

From the outside, the system put in place to protect children certainly looks overburdened. How did Maine’s child welfare system, once a national model, get that way? Why have no workers been added as the workload has ballooned? What is the point of adding even more work when the system can’t handle what’s in front of it?

Hamilton could have answered those questions without compromising the investigation. But he also probably would have revealed some hard truths about what has happened to the child welfare system under the LePage administration.

No wonder the governor didn’t want him there.

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