The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has a new motto: Really Sorry About All Those Dead Kids.
If that sentence makes you cringe, that was intended. Get used to it, because there’s more cringe-worthy stuff coming up.
According to data that reporters pried out of the department, in the past two years, 26 children between 20 days old and 10 years old died after DHHS was notified those kids might have been abused or neglected.
In some cases, the department seems to have done nothing about those complaints. In others, it didn’t do nearly enough. In all of them, nobody at DHHS was held responsible for failing to protect those children.
The reason for that is both simple and complicated. Let’s do simple first.
Department caseworkers are overworked. There are far too few of them handling far too many cases. Some reports are bound to fall through the cracks, and some of those are going to result in deaths. That’s the inevitable result of not taking a serious problem seriously.
The complicated part is that simply hiring more caseworkers isn’t the whole answer. Those new employees have to be trained, they have to be monitored, they have to be valued, and they have to have access to a network of services for kids, parents and foster parents. Without all that, more children are going to die for no good reason.
Why can’t all that be accomplished? Because DHHS is a monstrosity. The department sprawls across the bureaucratic landscape like a pulsing blob of mutated alien ooze.
Since 2004, when DHHS was created by combining the Department of Human Services and the Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services, it has grown into a behemoth requiring a commissioner, three deputy commissioners, 12 directors, two superintendents, one coordinator and more than 3,200 underlings charged with doing impossible tasks. That’s more people than live in a 30-mile radius of my house.
Besides child abuse cases, the department is charged with dealing (or not) with people with mental illnesses, people with disabilities, old people, people with addictions, disease prevention, and all manner of welfare from food stamps to Medicaid. There are plenty of horror stories about how it’s botched those responsibilities.
Incompetence costs money. In fiscal years 2018 and 2019, DHHS will spend something north of $3.8 billion. That’s more than the combined municipal budgets of every city and town in greater Portland, with enough left over to fund a large swath of York County.
By any measure, this department is unmanageable.
Under former Gov. Paul LePage and ex-Commissioner Mary Mayhew, the priority was to cut spending. Welfare rolls were reduced, sometimes reasonably, sometimes not. Positions of front-line workers were left vacant, always without regard to how that would affect vulnerable populations. Follow-up was nonexistent. Problems were ignored. Kids died.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and new Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew have promised change, with Lambrew telling a legislative committee she is “aggressively assessing” what’s possible. Here’s hoping that aggression extends to doing some serious deconstruction.
The only way DHHS can be made functional is to tear it apart and replace it with several smaller departments that could be adequately overseen. Start with a Department of Child and Family Services. Add a Department of Welfare. A Department of Health. A Department of Other Stuff That Maybe Needs Doing But Possibly Not.
Cut the creature down to a size that’s manageable.
And less cringe-worthy.
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