The Maine Office of Child and Family Services released its annual Child Welfare report last week. The report cites the COVID-19 pandemic as an aggravating factor for the department and its employees, which have come under increased scrutiny for their handling of a number of cases in 2021.
The pandemic was blamed for increased workloads and reduced contacts with children and their families and for high turnover that creates stress and often leaves those with little training to tackle cases. This means that investigations were sometimes superficial at best and rushed to meet deadlines by employees with large caseloads.
While that sounds like what many employees might say when asked about their last few years of work, failings by the Office of Child and Family Services can leave vulnerable children at risk and can be felt by families across the state.
Other factors were seen as impacting the child welfare system, including a lack of communication and coordination with behavioral and health providers who could provide insight into a family’s case, difficulty getting caregivers to engage with the department and a lack of clarity as to the roles and responsibilities of family members at team meetings.
Between January and October of 2021, there were 2,251 children in custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. That number is down slightly from past years, but following the deaths of four children last July, the state sought help from an independent investigatory body to help sort out its problems.
Last summer, the Maine Office of Child and Family Services engaged Casey Family Programs to analyze its internal systems. The study did not go into detail about the specific failings of the department, but it offered suggestions and recommendations for implementation. It also found that high rates of turnover, job burnout and inadequate communication between involved parties were prime issues across investigations.
We know that the work of the agency is delicate and that there are many factors that go into any particular case. However, there are some commonalities, including that fact that substance abuse is the identified risk factor in 50 percent of removals of children from their families. This factor alone should prompt the department to seek out substance abuse specialists and to offer programs for families that aid in reunification, which is the department’s stated end goal whenever possible.
Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic may have impacted the Maine Office of Child and Family Services, but it also impacted individuals – including parents – who experienced documented increases of mental health and substance abuse problems.
It is imperative that the department adopt a wholistic approach to working with children and their families, and that includes providing resources to families who will benefit most from them.