If anyone thought that North Carolina was the only state failing to learn from the mistakes of Texas and Arizona regarding its child welfare policies, he/she should think again. Maine is, if anything, failing even more miserably than North Carolina, whose latest tribulations I wrote about here (Bangor Daily News, 7/29/18).
Like North Carolina, Maine has decided that the way to improve the lives of children at risk for abuse or neglect is to demand that child protection caseworkers do more with less. The reason for the change in policy is that caseworkers weren’t doing a very good job of keeping up with their caseloads, so the LePage Administration’s “fix” has been to place a greater burden on them.
The key to that is the governor’s demand that attempts at family reunification be sidelined in favor of caseworkers deciding on an ad hoc basis what is – you guessed it – in the best interests of the child. Does LePage know that, in precisely the arena of child protection, the Supreme Court of Nebraska has found that very term – best interests of the child – to be unconstitutionally vague? Does he realize that, irrespective of constitutional matters, the term is subject to countless interpretations?
On June 6, child welfare staff received a memo from Office of Child and Family Services Acting Director Kirsten Capeless and two other child welfare officials instructing them to base all decisions on “what is in the child’s best interest.” They were also told to return to “an emphasis on investigation rather than assessment” when looking into child abuse and neglect allegations.
The terms aren’t defined in the memo, which caseworkers said leaves them open to interpretation by more than 300 caseworkers and more than 60 supervisors.
So family reunification has been scrapped in favor of a standard that is no standard at all. Even constitutional scholars can’t figure out what the “best interests of the child” means and the memo from on high made no effort to define it so caseworkers wouldn’t have to guess. What could possibly go wrong?
How did the new policy come about? Not by consulting professionals in the child protection field. Apparently, that’s par for the course.
But the announcement of major changes with little explanation, and an expectation that they be swiftly implemented, is emblematic of the way things operate in the Maine agency charged with looking out for the welfare of children in potential danger from abusive parents, according to the child welfare workers who spoke with the BDN.
The changes come down frequently, following no consultation with frontline staff, the caseworkers said. They leave workers with more paperwork to complete and additional layers of approval to secure before making routine decisions, thus delaying them. Then, just as quickly as a new initiative or policy is deployed, it can end.
It comes as no surprise that the new policy likely results from a very public tragedy. Earlier this year, two children were killed, allegedly by their parents and the resulting media hubbub seems to have influenced Gov. LePage. This of course is not unusual. Bad publicity makes governmental figures want to appear pro-active, so they change policy regardless of whether it’s warranted. Texas Governor Greg Abbott did the same thing early in 2017 in response to a child’s death at the hands of a relative. Despite the fact that kinship care is preferable to foster care by strangers, Abbott all but outlawed the practice. His new rule made no sense, but he wanted the public to see him as quickly and effectively responding to a tragedy. Bad facts make bad policy. ‘Twas ever thus.
But larger caseloads and unworkable standards aren’t the only problem faced by caseworkers.
One result is a workforce struggling to keep up with a workload that has grown larger in the months following Marissa Kennedy’s and Kendall Chick’s deaths — following years during which child protective workers had already seen their workloads increase. And, as a result of department policy changes, each case Child Protective Services takes on now requires more work.
In-office paperwork now occupies far more of a caseworker’s time than before. One caseworker told the Bangor Daily News:
“There’s been a significant increase in the amount of paperwork and deskwork that we are doing now. That really detracts away from the amount of time that we can spend as workers out in the field meeting our children and working with our families.”
But what’s really going on isn’t always easy to figure out. That’s because caseworkers have been ordered to not speak with the press. That of course is part of the usual secrecy within which all child welfare agencies operate. The public is largely shielded from the facts about what those agencies are doing. Documents aren’t made public and a siege mentality tends to keep agency employees from divulging much. In Maine, they’ve gone one better and simply prohibited contact between caseworkers and the press. The quotation above was provided anonymously.
The BDN article is long and informative. I’ll write more on it next time.