A consultant hired to review Maine’s child welfare system found these flaws

5 years ago

Early findings in a new report evaluating eight child welfare cases handled by Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services show a system-wide need for department improvements — a likely precursor for a more comprehensive report to come.

The preliminary evaluation, which began in October and will take more than a year to complete, was commissioned in September by former Health and Human Services acting Commissioner Bethany Hamm to identify department shortcomings, DHHS spokesperson Emily Spencer said Tuesday. Public Consulting Group was hired to do the report.

The audit is part of a multi-faceted response to two high-profile child deaths. Hamm called for the audit a few weeks after former Gov. Paul LePage signed into law four emergency bills aimed at improving Maine’s child welfare system, following the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick. In May, the government watchdog group known as the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability released a preliminary report faulting DHHS caseworkers for mishandling one of the cases.

The first phase of the audit cost just more than $330,000, Spencer said. The 137-page report skimmed the surface of department-wide practices and identified areas where practice improvements are necessary. It took a deeper dive into eight child welfare cases, which were “some of the most severe and problematic,” with issues ranging from child death and serious injury to chronic neglect, though details about the cases are confidential.

Here are some of the areas in need of improvement:

— Staff need to be better trained in discerning “high-risk” cases. In one of the eight cases examined, more than 30 calls were made to the department’s phone hotline about one family by either mandatory reporters or a concerned member of the public. More than 20 calls were made about another family. The combination of those referrals “should have raised questions,” the report said. PCG found that caseworker involvement “did not always ensure” the child or children were “best served by the agency’s involvement.”

— Staff need to improve case response times. There was a “noted lack of urgency” among caseworkers handling those eight cases, which is an “important systemic issue,” the report found. In one case, it took a year to determine the child was in jeopardy, and another 16 months before a plan addressing the problem was implemented. More generally, from September 2017 to August 2018, five percent, or 1,088 of initial assessments of child welfare cases were not initiated on time.

— The department needs an online reporting service for mandated reporters. Thirty percent of all calls made to the Office of Child and Family Services’ intake hotline — where people can call to report suspected child maltreatment — went unanswered between January and November last year. With no electronic mechanism in place to leave messages and no way to track unanswered calls, “this system allows for several possible missteps,” the report found. OCFS has vowed to update its system in the next four months, according to the report, which will include hiring seven new staff to help with call response time.

— Staff had a hard time challenging parents’ stories, even when evidence was contradictory. This applied to caseworkers assigned to each of the eight cases, as well as the court system and other contracted service providers, and there were “no real consequences or actions taken when parents refuse to comply,” the report found. At times, parents’ stories would be contradicted by a child’s perspective, which was not always sought out, though it should be “prioritized.”

The consultant’s complete audit of OCFS will wrap up in March of 2020. Those findings will be merged with OPEGA’s final report — which is forthcoming — to create what will likely be the most comprehensive picture to date of Maine’s child welfare system.

Today in A-town

The nominee who would round out the governor’s Cabinet will get a confirmation hearing on Thursday. That’s Amanda Beal, the CEO of Maine Farmland Trust, who is Gov. Janet Mills’ nominee for commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Beal, 46 of Warren also operates a family farm and woodlot and would lead a wide-ranging department created in a merger of three departments in 2012 that many constituent groups would like to see undone.

Beal’s confirmation hearing will be before the Legislature’s agriculture committee at 1 p.m. today. You can listen here. The panel will likely vote to advance her nomination to the Senate, which must confirm her. All 14 of Mills’ other cabinet nominees are already in place.

The House and Senate are in with lots of committee meetings after Wednesday’s snow day for the Legislature. The House and Senate are scheduled to convene at 10 a.m. on Thursday — mostly to do the rote work of sending more and more bills to committees. Several committees will also meet on Thursday, including the education panel, which will hold public hearings on five bills, including a proposal from Sen. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, to add financial literacy to the list of statewide curriculum standards and one from Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, to mandate the teaching of cursive writing in grades 3 through 5.

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— The growth of one of Maine’s biggest employers is shifting locations due to a lack of affordable housing along the coast. Jackson Laboratory, which employs more than 1,400 people in Bar Harbor as one of the world’s largest breeders of mice for scientific purposes, is planning to move most of its production to Ellsworth because of a tight housing market on Mount Desert Island. Such a move would shorten commutes for most employees and allow the company to draw employees from as far away as Belfast, Greater Bangor and Machias.

— The first remote school day in Maine history came on Wednesday in a Camden-area school district. School as most know it was canceled due to the snowstorm, but students in the the combined School Administrative District 28 and Five Town Community School District had work to do from home. It was the district’s first try at a remote school day, which it began planning last year in hope using two remote school days to offset regular snow days. The Maine Department of Education rejected the district’s request to exempt it from the 175-school day requirement, but a one-day pilot got the OK from Pender Makin, who is Mills’ new education commissioner. In elementary schools, students were given skill-based assignments due today; students in higher grades use laptops for assignments. Here’s your soundtrack.

— Five rural Maine hospitals are among a group of 25 that will have federal help to stabilize their finances. The group of hospitals are Penobscot Valley Hospital in Lincoln, Northern Light C.A. Dean Hospital in Greenville, Northern Light Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield, Mayo Regional Hospital in Dover-Foxcroft and Calais Regional Hospital and all have struggled financially of late. The award from the federal Office of Rural Health Policy will give them technical help from experts in a Texas A&M University program. A majority of these hospitals have recorded operating losses in recent years and the Lincoln hospital recently declared bankruptcy.

— Maine lawmakers want to ban vaping in schools — which it turns out isn’t banned everywhere. Maine Public reports that a group of lawmakers wants to ban the use of e-cigarettes — or vaping — in schools. Vaping has shown itself to encourage people to quit smoking, but it has also reversed a decline in tobacco use among school-aged children in Maine. Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, has submitted a bill to ban vaping in schools statewide. Now, schools have to rely on their own policies. The head of the Maine Principals Association called it the “biggest disciplinary issue” in schools and a Yarmouth middle school student called it “a really big problem that needs to be addressed.” Here’s your soundtrack.

My naughty Valentine

Happy Valentine’s Day! Let’s all offer a moment of silent homage to St. Valentine of Rome, who was beheaded on this date roughly 1,750 years ago.

Usually, we honor people on the day they were born, not the date they died.

Complicating matters is the fact that there might be more than one St. Valentine. The Catholic Encyclopedia — who knew there was one of these? — notes that “at least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies.”

That made me think that Valentine must be the patron saint of confusion, which is my most common reaction to romance, for which Valentine — whoever he was — is also patron saint.

Despite the confusion about his identity, Valentine became a handy option for Christian leaders who wanted to rub out pagan holidays. In the late fifth century, Pope Gelasius decided to replace Lupercalia — a bloody pagan festival of love involving ritual sacrifices, whips and men pulling the names of young women out of a box for what surely were not romantic reasons — with a feast day to honor St. Valentine.

In the Middle Ages, the fact that European birds began pairing off in mid-February also fortified the link between St. Valentine’s Day and coupling. The Brits, probably spurred by marketing mavens for Cadbury and stationery stores, popularized the traditions of doling out candy and love notes.

Citing an imprisoned duke’s love letters to his wife, the French claim credit for making the day a celebration of romance. But French authorities also had to ban the practice of having jilted women burn pictures of those who forsook them in a massive bonfire because things too often got out of hand. Overreaction from the French in matters of the heart; go figure.

When I was in elementary school, Valentine’s Day was a big deal. We had to make heart-shaped folders in art class, which were then filled with cards from classmates. Participation was mandatory; cooties be damned. You even had to give them to people you did not like, which was democratic but distinctly unromantic.

I got around that by writing a naughty word on the back of one card — prayers and swears dominated my vocabulary when I was 7 — but the plan backfired when the recipient blackmailed me for weeks by threatening to tell my parents. It cost me a lot of candy and was my first lesson in the vagaries of romance. Here is your soundtrack— Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com, aacquisto@bangordailynews.com, and rlong@bangordailynews.com.