More kids entered state custody as the pandemic stressed Maine's child welfare system

·5 min read

Jun. 5—If you are concerned about a child being neglected or abused, call Maine's 24-hour hotline at 800-452-1999 or 711 to speak with a child protective specialist. Calls may be made anonymously. For more information, visit maine.gov/dhhs/ocfs/cw/reporting_abuse.

Last year, Mark Moran noticed fewer children showing up at the hospital with signs of abuse or neglect. That would be positive in normal times.

But Moran, the family services coordinator at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, increasingly heard from families stressed by the coronavirus pandemic, dealing with job losses and challenges of managing school or child care at home. The social connections that help protect children likely eroded and have not yet recovered, Moran fears.

"I worry that things are being missed, frankly," he said.

The pandemic obscured a child welfare system under scrutiny after the high-profile deaths of Kendall Chick in 2017 and Marissa Kennedy months later. The number of children in state custody rose while reports nosedived and largely rebounded. Maine is struggling to implement reforms, though the state touts progress on staffing, turnover and pandemic-related challenges. Gov. Janet Mills' administration and lawmakers are tangling over proposed changes.

Nationally, the child welfare system has seen wide issues during the pandemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found child visits to emergency rooms decreased in 2020, but the percent of those visits requiring hospitalization increased compared to 2019.

The number of children in Maine's custody rose 7 percent from January to October of last year. It declined through May. Reports to Maine's child welfare hotline sharply dropped last year but have rebounded. The number of incidents of abuse or neglect — adjusted for the amount of time kids spent in state custody — rose from January to June 2020 before gradually declining. The rate returned below the U.S. standard by April.

In Maine, the biggest challenge facing child welfare during the pandemic has been visibility. Reports to the state typically drop in the summer when school lets out, but the move to remote learning in March made it harder for schools to monitor children. Caseworkers briefly paused in-person visitations to children in March 2020 but resumed them by last June.

"I don't think it's that children were less subjected to harm during that time," said Shawn Yardley, a former child protective worker and the CEO of Community Concepts, which handles lower-risk welfare cases for the state. "It's just that people couldn't see it."

All of the challenges took place in a department still grappling with staff and training challenges. Maine added 33 caseworkers in a state budget two years ago after a state survey found 54 percent of caseworkers felt too overworked to do their jobs properly, though turnover has decreased from 23 percent in 2018 to 15 percent last year.

A January caseload report found the state would need another 42 workers to handle the number of children in its care. The state is asking for 15 more caseworkers this budget cycle as it looks to end work with groups including Community Concepts on lower-risk cases.

The report outlined other challenges, including staffing levels due in part to quarantines and child care issues. A reduction in the ability to place children in out-of-state residential settings put more pressure on caseworkers, who had to supervise children in some cases or work with them in foster homes that could not provide adequate care.

The legislative panel overseeing the judicial system requested another assistant attorney general focused on child welfare in the state budget this year, citing the highest number of children subject to child protection court cases in a decade. The pandemic led to a slowdown in court cases and Attorney General Aaron Frey's office expects appeals to rebound this year.

The fluctuating number of children in care could be attributed to Maine focusing on permanently placing children, said Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Jackie Farwell. The higher number of children in care could be due to federal legislation ensuring foster children do not "age out" of placement in the pandemic and may drop when that order expires, she said.

Challenges have diminished with more people getting COVID-19 vaccines as the department has tried to be flexible around child care and families adapted to social distancing requirements during visits, Farwell said. But a caseworker who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation said in-person visits were still stressful despite being provided with protective equipment because their work required them to visit multiple families a month, not all of whom were following distancing guidelines.

"Caseworkers have been doing the absolute best with the situation they've been handed," said Christine Alberi, the state's child welfare ombudsman. "There's a lot of pressure, coupled with the bad publicity around the department, that has added another layer of difficulty to deal with."

Alberi noted in her 2020 report that the state still struggles with initial investigations into a child's safety and assessing whether a child should be reunited with their parents, a time when children are most at risk. The department has disagreed with these findings, saying it is making sure social workers keep up with license requirements and other training.

Legislative efforts around the child welfare system have had mixed results this year. One bill to establish an early intervention program for families in lower-risk situations was opposed by the Mills administration and watered down by a committee. Another from Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, to put the child welfare office in its own department cleared an initial Senate vote on Thursday despite state opposition.

Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, a social worker who sponsored the intervention bill, said she was reminded of families' challenges when a constituent struggling with child care called her after the state received a report that one of her four children under 10 missed school. The parent had just given birth before the pandemic and was struggling to manage remote learning.

"What are we going to do for these families that are really trying to make ends meet, and are struggling with that?" she said.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting