Politics & Other Mistakes: Fixing the DHHS disaster

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According to a news release from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (motto: The way we’ve always done things doesn’t work – which is fine with us), here are some of the improvements DHHS plans to institute to stop children from being killed or severely abused:

“Working with hospitals and law enforcement … to ensure robust and timely sharing of information.”

Al Diamon“Collaborating with behavioral health providers and legal experts to develop guidance for clinicians.”

“An updated policy for family team meetings.”

“Further evaluating standby and after-hour staffing.”

“Increasing engagement with parents.”

And there might be some other stuff, but only after a bunch of meetings and more “collaborating,” this time with legislators. 

In other words, all talk, no action.

Yeah, that oughta keep kids from dying, because dying creates messy public-relations problems for the department, and DHHS’ response to the increasing number of child deaths in Maine has mostly been about public relations.

The wimpy list of improvements promised by the department came after a national group, Casey Family Programs, issued a series of recommendations that were only slightly less limp than those DHHS came up with. Both sets are heavy on the bureaucratese and light on substantive changes that might actually protect kids at risk.

Here are a few ideas the department neglected to include.

In September, former DHHS Commissioner Michael Petit authored an op-ed in which he laid out two simple ideas for detecting serious abuse before it rises to the level of being life-threatening.

“First,” Petit wrote, “the state must reduce its nearly 50 percent screen-out of referrals – nearly 12,000 children. All referrals involving children 2 years and under – and eventually all children – should receive an in-home assessment, either by DHHS or one of its community-based allies.”

In short, stop ignoring reports of abuse.

Petit’s second recommendation was to deal with inexperienced caseworkers and supervisors by conducting “’desktop’ audits” of all existing cases. These audits would feature DHHS staff and “community allies, such as retired family law attorneys, nurses, mental health workers, and law enforcement” to review each case to see if the child is safe.

Obviously, Petit’s plans would cost time and money, but they’d save lives, which – correct me if I’m wrong here – is sorta the whole idea.

State Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham is the leading legislative champion of actually doing something to fix DHHS. Diamond introduced a bill to make the Office of Child and Family Services a separate department to increase accountability and focus, but it failed to pass the House. Diamond plans to try again in January when the Legislature reconvenes but faces significant obstacles due to legislative rules, which don’t permit defeated bills from returning in the next session.

In the meantime, he wrote his own op-ed in early November in which he noted that the office needs more resources and better communications, but “none of these factors should be used as excuses for the department’s ongoing poor decision-making when the evidence shows they continue to fail to place kids in safe homes.”

That’s not DHHS’ only shortcoming. The department continues to insist it’s addressing the issues by hiring more caseworkers while failing to note that these newbies are being thrown into the mix untrained. Also, since what’s really wrong at the department is systemic, simply adding more bodies, trained or untrained, to the morass doesn’t fix anything.

“The system is broken,” Diamond told the Bangor Daily News in September. “We can’t just let it go on like it has.”

But for all its talk about “evaluating” and “increasing engagement,” that’s exactly what DHHS intends to do. There are no signs of change in its upper management because for the people holding those jobs to admit to their mistakes, they’d have to take responsibility for several child deaths. That’s not going to happen until there’s a substantial housecleaning.

A lot of department executives need to lose their jobs before any more kids lose their lives.

Got a better idea? Throw it on the trash heap of stuff that’s already being ignored by emailing [email protected].