OPEGA investigation reveals ongoing challenges faced by child protective workers
AUGUSTA — The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability has released its findings in the second part of an investigation into the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and four-year-old Kendall Chick, both of whom were allegedly murdered at the hands of caretakers in 2018 and 2017, respectively.
The official report, titled Frontline Workers in the State Protective System: Perspectives on Factors That Impact Effectiveness and Efficiency of Child Protective Work, was released Feb. 19.
The first phase of the investigation began shortly after the February 2018 death of Marissa Kennedy, who died following months of sustained abuse allegedly perpetrated by her mother Sharon Carrillo and her husband, Julio Carrillo.
The results of the fact-finding phase were returned in May, with the second phase of the investigation beginning in June when the Government Oversight Committee assigned OPEGA a “special project aimed at understanding the perspectives of frontline workers in the Office of Child and Family Services.”
This portion of the investigation focused on obtaining information directly from Child Protective Services workers to help legislators in understanding factors affecting the efficiency and effectiveness of OCFS workers, according to the report.
In order to obtain workers’ perspectives, an online assessment was sent to all permanency and intake caseworkers and supervisors in Sept. 2018, which received a total of 191 responses.
Follow-up interviews were created after the responses were reviewed and 44 child protective staff were interviewed. The workers interviewed included representations from each of the eight OCFS districts, according to the report, and involved caseworkers, supervisors, program administrators, and assistant program administrators.
According to a summary of the report a “number of themes emerged” from the survey and interviews. Some of the themes include the difficult nature of child protective work, which includes many facets and “odd and unpredictable hours.”
The report states that although many of the respondents said they “value the work, want to do a good job, and are very concerned about the children in their cases,” the nature of the work contributes to “poor work/life balance, a risk of secondary trauma, and at times, concerns for workers safety while in the field.”
Workers also listed a slew of demands on their time as another component of work responsibilities, including travel, documentation, scheduling visitations, and other administrative tasks “that do not directly involve working with the families or their caseload.”
Many also felt that their current workload could not be completed in a 40-hour work week.
Beyond the many challenges, respondents also reported an “ongoing shortage of available placements for children who have been removed from their families, which often results in workers having to spend hours or days with children in hotels or hospital emergency rooms.”
OPEGA notes in the report that they were told the shortage “greatly impacts staff and children.”
According to the report, it can be especially difficult to place sibling groups, which often results in them having separate placements. This can be an added trauma to the initial trauma of being removed from their home.
Children with difficult behaviors can also present challenges when looking for placements, with many families unwilling to foster those with certain behaviors, such as fire-setting, violence, or sexualized behaviors. In these cases a residential group home may be the best solution, though respondents noted a lack of that type of facility in the state.
Such children are often placed in facilities far from their homes, with some placed out of state.
Even children who are able to find placements can often end up with foster families that are far from their community and support systems, which can pose difficulties including travel burdens for school, supervised visitation, and other aspects of having a child removed from their home.
Changes made with guidance or worker input
Changes implemented after the deaths of Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick have also reportedly had an impact on child protective workers, with respondents concerned that many of the changes made were done so “without their input, with little explanation, and without adequate guidance on how to implement the changes.”
One major change in Maine’s Child Protective Services following the Spring 2018 implementation of many of the changes, has been a dramatic increase in the volume of work staff are charged with handling.
While other recent changes “did not necessarily increase the number of cases,” they did increase the amount of work or time involved with each case.
Workers also referenced the role of increased drug abuse in the state and the “general lack of services for families such as mental health treatment and other community resources as increasing and complicating child protective efforts.”
According to the report, respondents said they believe that the increase in caseloads is one reason for some areas’ increase in employee turnover. Of those who responded, 44 percent have been in their position for two years or less, while 33 percent said they are “actively seeking a new job.”
Fifty-four out of 64 respondents reported that workload is “leading to or making it likely that [they] will look for employment outside of OCFS, while 52 percent reported emotional burnout and stress as factors. Forty cited lack of resources while 31 listed safety concerns.
When all of the issues are combined, respondents reported that both workers and the child protective system are affected.
“With the increased workload they are not able to devote proper attention to each family on their caseload, and many worry that they will miss something that could lead to another tragedy,” the report states.
With regard to what could help the situation, respondents reported that “the pay increase over the summer was helping.” They also suggested that longer-term employees be rewarded by having two designations of caseworker, with a Caseworker II level acknowledging “experience or potentially graduate education with a pay differential.”
Throughout interviews and responses, workers reported that the workload is “unmanageable for workers and that the recommended solution was more workers who could be retained,” the report states. Workers felt this could be accomplished by offering “different sorts of schedules or an option to do some work from home that might better fit with worker’s individual needs.”
Respondents and interviewees were also asked what they wanted Legislators to know, which prompted a variety of responses.
“Of the 117 caseworkers who responded to the question, 54 responses wanted Legislators to be aware of the sheer volume of work that workers are being asked to manage and 36 answers addressed staff shortages and problems with retaining staff.”
“Of the 34 supervisors who responded to the same question, 15 responses addressed the impacts to workers regarding secondary trauma, stress, burnout, and work-life balance. Thirteen discussed the need for better compensation for supervisors, including the fact that supervisors do not receive overtime pay. Thirteen responses again discussed the volume of work and difficulty in meeting the expected timeframes. Twelve themes addressed the importance of staff retention and having enough caseworkers to do the work.”
Erica Thoms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org