Maine child protective, family services workers identify problems, solutions to better serve children, families
Survey of workers at Maine DHHS Office of Child and Family Services forms basis of labor union’s 10 recommendations
AUGUSTA (Aug. 15) — The labor union representing State of Maine workers who provide child protective and family services today released a 10-point list of recommendations to strengthen and improve child and family services in Maine. The recommendations include reducing caseloads to the national standard, hiring additional support staff allowing caseworkers to focus more on their cases, cutting down on duplicative paperwork, and providing the workers with technology that adequately documents the level of risk in every instance.
The recommendations by the Maine State Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union, followed the union’s survey of the approximately 350 caseworkers and case aides it represents in the Maine Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Over 45 workers from Maine OCFS offices statewide participated in the survey.
The survey and recommendations come as state legislative leaders, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, and the Maine Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability are considering ways to strengthen Maine’s child protective system following the child-abuse deaths of two Maine children, Kendall Chick, age 4, of Wiscasset, on Dec. 8, 2017, and Marissa Kennedy, age 10, of Stockton Springs, on Feb. 25, 2018.
“Our recommendations come from the hearts and souls of front-line Maine OCFS workers who go to work every day focused entirely on doing everything within their power to keep Maine children safe,” said MSEA-SEIU Retiree Director Peggy Rice, a retired social worker and caseworker for Maine DHHS. “These workers know what is working and what isn’t working within the Maine Office of Child and Family Services. In the survey, they shared their hopes and fears. The 10 recommendations we are making are rooted in the urgent need to strengthen this linchpin in Maine’s human services structure.”
The union issued its recommendations in a one-page document titled Our Vision for Child and Family Services.
“We believe all children deserve safe childhoods. We do this work because we care deeply about Maine children,” the vision document states. “We are determined to protect them, support them, and build families that also can protect and support them. We believe that to do this effectively, serious changes need to be made to Maine DHHS policies, practices and programs. We must recruit and retain staff to stabilize quality public services for Maine children and families. The people who do the front-line work must be empowered to shape the policies and programs they implement each day.”
In their survey responses, front-line workers at Maine OCFS wrote frankly about their fears surrounding the high caseloads they routinely face:
• “High caseloads prevent me from doing the quality work with the families I work with.”
• “We are not able to give every case the attention it deserves.”
• “With too high of a caseload, you cannot properly or timely assess needs for families and then set up services appropriately.”
• “We are expected to do about 60 hours of work per week within (the) 40 hours we are allotted per week. Tell me how that does not compromise child safety and the ability to provide services?”
• “We don’t have time to get to know the families we work with or ensure that visits take place and parents have access to services.”
Asked whether they had concerns about the size of their workload, all 45 workers who answered that survey question said yes. Three-fourths of respondents felt they had insufficient administrative support staff in their office. Nearly as many reported skipping a 15-minute break every day. Over a quarter reported skipping their lunch break every day, and over half skip their lunch break at least once a week. Over 80 percent of respondents said they are concerned about forced overtime.
The workers reported experiencing multiple technology problems while doing their jobs. Nearly half said the computerized documentation programs lack the correct keys necessary to flag risk. Over two-thirds said the office’s “Dragon voice” and “MAC WIS” systems don’t work well, and that their computer equipment doesn’t work properly or hold a charge.
Based on the survey results, and on other conversations with the front-line workers, MSEA-SEIU bargaining unit members made 10 recommendations to strengthen and improve Maine’s child and family services provided by Maine OCFS workers:
- Reduce the caseload to a manageable caseload that matches the national standard of no more than 12 cases per caseworker. This will provide the necessary time with every child and capacity for family plans.
- Hire more administrative support staff, allowing caseworkers to have the time they need to focus on casework.
- End forced overtime, taking work home, and missing work breaks and lunch breaks, all of which are leading to burnout and stress.
- Ensure the safety of staff as they work in the field.
- Provide the technology that truly functions to meet the needs of the Maine Office of Child and Family Services workers and efficiently integrates into their work. This means investing in the right tech and the right training, not just the cheapest.
- Reduce unneeded or duplicative paperwork, including making case plans more accessible and usable for families.
- Give front-line workers a voice in policies, practices and programs so they can meaningfully participate in developing and implementing them.
- Establish a night shift for coverage across Maine DHHS districts.
- Provide the necessary resources for support programming, including public health nurses and housing, mental health and addiction resources. Caseworkers need these types of services fully resourced and staffed so Maine families can get the support they need.
- Reassess the foster parent certification process, training and support to better build and support Maine’s network of foster parents.
The Maine State Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union, represents over 12,000 Maine workers and retirees.