Maine Child Welfare Dysfunction, Part Two

August 1, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Under the too-watchful eye of Governor Paul LePage, the Maine system of child protection has gone from one of the nation’s best to one that typifies the dysfunction of child welfare agencies generally (Bangor Daily News, 7/29/18). That appears to have come in response to the deaths of two children at the hands of their parents. As I said last time, tragic cases frequently result in ill-thought-out changes to CPS agencies and Maine is no exception.

Current policy de-emphasizes family reunification and makes temporary placement with children’s blood relatives more difficult. The result of all that is more kids being taken from families, more kids in foster care, higher caseworker turnover, too few foster parents and a reliance on the infinitely malleable term “best interests of the child.”

As for the term “child’s best interest” now governing Maine’s approach to child welfare, “everyone comes up with a rationale for why their way of doing things is in the best interest of the child,” said Jim Beougher, who spent four decades working in child welfare, including seven years as director of Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services, from 2004 to 2011.

The move toward BIC and away from family reunification means more kids taken from parents and placed in foster care.

Another result is an agency that’s more likely to remove children from their parents’ homes and place them in foster care.

“The pendulum is definitely swinging toward being more cautious: better to err on the side of, we don’t want to be responsible if something happens, so we’re going to take the quick step so that we can say, if something does happen, ‘We tried,’” said the caseworker.

I’ve written about that attitude many times. The rationale is defensive: “If something does happen, ‘We tried.” That’s not about children, but about CPS doing CYA. It’s about being able to tell the press, “We tried.” Former director of Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services Jim Beougher understands completely.

Over the course of his child welfare career, Beougher said, he saw child welfare agencies across the country react to high-profile tragedies in unhelpful ways.

“If a system becomes so afraid of making a mistake and the management structure doesn’t account for that, the system can become overwhelmed with investigating reports that aren’t appropriate, removing children who don’t need to be removed, placing children in settings that don’t meet their needs. And systemic tragedies unfold that way,” Beougher said.

What’s best for kids is usually keeping them with their parents as much as possible. That’s because for a child to be taken from its home and parents is itself terribly traumatic.

“How are we doing a good job for these kids, that we’ve removed them from their parents, they’re traumatized, they’re scared, and then we plop them in a hotel? How is that best for them?” the caseworker said. “And then when we find a placement, it’s not necessarily even a permanent placement, and we’re bouncing them around from respite home to respite home to respite home, trying to find a placement for them.”

Yes, the “best interests of the child” often turn out to be exactly the opposite. Such is the upside down world of children’s welfare.

Meanwhile, the new policies discourage family reunification. They do that in part by making reunification requirements and plans hard for parents to figure out.

In order to reunify parents and children, Child Protective Services workers are now required to follow a new, more complicated reunification plan document. Instead of two pages, the new legal document is eight to nine.

“It’s so difficult to interpret,” a caseworker said. “Most of our clients have a very low level of functioning, and if we’re having a hard time interpreting it, then it’s a problem, because that’s what they follow to reunify with their children.”

The LePage Administration seems to have a very limited grasp of the situation. Very limited.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton told lawmakers earlier this month that LePage planned to propose adding 75 caseworker positions in Child Protective Services as part of forthcoming legislation to overhaul the child welfare system.

Now, I hope readers weren’t so careless as to conclude that LePage proposed adding caseworkers. He didn’t. His proposal is for caseworker positions, a stance one caseworker called “hilarious.”

One of the caseworkers interviewed by the BDN called the proposal for 75 new positions “hilarious.”

“In every single office, there are slots that are empty all the time,” she said. “So, go ahead, commissioner, give us a million lines. That’s fine, because we can’t keep the slots we have [right now] full.”

That office doesn’t fill the jobs it has open, so opening new ones doesn’t seem calculated to improve matters. Does LePage have a clue? I fear he does not and his wrong-headed policies are sending Maine down a road that leads to worse outcomes for kids, worse working conditions for caseworkers, higher caseworker turnover, and eventually, a real crisis of the type that we’ve seen in Arizona and Texas. Meanwhile, children and parents suffer.

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