Extra children entered state custody because the pandemic confused Maine’s little one welfare system

If you are concerned about a child being neglected or abused, call the Maine 24-hour helpline at 800-452-1999 or 711 to speak to a child protection specialist. Calls can be made anonymously. For more information, see maine.gov/dhhs/ocfs/cw/reporting_abuse.

Last year, Mark Moran noted that fewer children showed up in the hospital with signs of abuse or neglect. That would be positive in normal times.

However, Moran, the family services coordinator at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, began to hear from families stressed by the coronavirus pandemic, facing job losses and challenges in managing school or childcare at home. The social connections that help protect children are likely to have eroded and not yet recovered, Moran fears.

“I worry that things will be missed, honestly,” he said.

The pandemic obscured a child welfare system that came under scrutiny following the high profile deaths of Kendall Chick in 2017 and Marissa Kennedy months later. The number of children in government custody rose while reports crashed and largely recovered. Maine is struggling to implement reforms despite the state announcing advances in staffing, turnover and pandemic-related challenges. Government and lawmakers from Gov. Janet Mills are embarrassed about the proposed changes.

Nationally, the child support system has seen major problems during the pandemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the number of visits by children to emergency rooms decreased in 2020, but the percentage of visits that required hospitalization increased compared to 2019.

The number of children in Maine’s care rose 7 percent from January to October last year. It went back to May. Reports to the Maine Child Aid Line fell sharply last year but have rebounded. The number of cases of abuse or neglect – adjusted for the time children spent in government care – increased from January to June 2020 before gradually declining. By April the rate was again below the US standard.

In Maine, the biggest challenge to child welfare during the pandemic was visibility. Reports to the state typically fall off in the summer when school is down, but the move to distance learning in March made it difficult for schools to monitor children. In March 2020, case officers briefly suspended personal visits to children, but resumed them in June last year.

Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts, (right) speaks with Mary Mayhew, then commissioner for the Maine Department of Health, at a Breakfast for the Bangor Area Chamber of Commerce on Feb.26, 2014. Photo credit: Nick McCrea / BDN

“I don’t think children have suffered any less harm during that time,” said Shawn Yardley, a former child protection officer and CEO of Community Concepts, which handles lower-risk welfare cases for the state. “It’s just that people couldn’t see it.”

All challenges took place in a department that was still dealing with HR and training challenges. Maine added 33 clerks to a state budget two years ago after a state survey found 54 percent of clerks felt too overworked to do their jobs properly, despite the turnover from 23 percent in 2018 to 15 percent last year has decreased.

A January case report found that the state would need an additional 42 staff to deal with the number of children in its care. The state is asking for 15 more case handlers for this budget cycle as it wants to stop working with groups including community approaches on lower risk cases.

The report outlined other challenges, including staffing levels, partly due to quarantines and childcare issues. Restricting the ability to place children in extra-governmental housing increases pressure on case workers, who in some cases have to supervise children or work with them in nursing homes that cannot provide adequate care.

The legislative body that oversees the judicial system this year called for another deputy attorney general to focus on child welfare in the state budget and named the highest number of children involved in child protection trials in a decade. The pandemic slowed legal processes and the office of Attorney General Aaron Frey expects appeals to pick up again this year.

Maine Department of Health Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew speaks at the opening of a makeshift COVID-19 mass vaccination clinic at a former Scarborough racecourse on Wednesday, February 3, 2021. Photo credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The volatile number of children being cared for could be attributed to Maine’s focus on permanent child placement, said Health Department spokeswoman Jackie Farwell. The higher number of children being cared for could be due to federal laws ensuring foster children don’t “age” in the pandemic and may decline after that order expires, she said.

Challenges have lessened as more people get COVID-19 vaccines as the department has tried to be flexible about childcare and families who adapt to social distancing needs during visits, Farwell said. However, a case officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said personal visits, despite protective gear, were still stressful as they had to visit several families each month to do their work, not all of whom followed the distance guidelines.

“The clerks did the best with the situation they got,” said Christine Alberi, the state’s child welfare officer. “There’s a lot of pressure coupled with the bad publicity in the department, which has added another level of difficulty.”

Alberi noted in her 2020 report that the state is still grappling with initial research into a child’s safety and assessing whether a child should be reunited with their parents, at a time when children are most at risk . The department disagreed with these results, saying it ensures social workers keep up with licensing requirements and other training.

Legislature stands for the national anthem during a term in the State House on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Augusta. Photo credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Legislative efforts on the child welfare system have produced mixed results this year. A bill to establish an early intervention program for families in lower risk situations was rejected by the Mills administration and weakened by a committee. Another from Senator Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who classified the youth welfare office in a separate department, released a first Senate vote on Thursday despite state opposition.

Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, a social worker who sponsored the Intervention Act, said she was reminded of the challenges facing families when a voter struggling with childcare called them after the state received a report that one of her four children under the age of 10 went missing school. The parent had just given birth before the pandemic and was struggling to cope with distance learning.

“What are we going to do for these families who are really trying to make ends meet and are struggling with it?” She said.

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