AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine is struggling with an uptick in alleged child abuse and neglect, a legislative watchdog agency said Thursday.

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability is investigating Maine’s child welfare system following the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in February in Stockton Springs and 4-year-old Kendall Chick in December in Wiscasset. The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Thursday discussed plans to gather anonymous input from workers on the front line of the issue: Maine’s child protective caseworkers.

“That’s the crux of the issue,” Republican Sen. Thomas Saviello said. “Do they have the training, staffing, resources to do the job right?”

Caseworkers’ workloads are increasing as call volumes go up and new policy changes require more investigations of some allegations, according to information given to lawmakers by Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. Maine had 6,159 cases being investigated as of mid-June, a figure that’s more than double the number of cases in January 2017.

Republican Sen. Roger Katz and Democratic Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, who chair the Government Oversight Committee, said Republican Gov. Paul LePage told them Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton would speak before the committee Thursday.

“We’ve wasted a few weeks in an area we have no time to waste,” Katz said, later adding: “We took him at his word and he wasn’t here today.”

LePage said his administration will provide records and written answers to the committee.

“Given that this (is) a matter of significant public interest during an election year, we could not risk that (Government Oversight Committeee) legislators would use the hearing to grandstand to score political points,” LePage said.

The Government Oversight Committee unanimously voted to subpoena Hamilton to attend a committee meeting in July. Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond said he hoped lawmakers could consider legislation improving Maine’s child welfare system at a special session later this year.

The Department of Health and Human Services says it has unrolled initiatives to improve Maine’s child welfare system. But Diamond said the agency has only shared vague statements that “don’t say anything.”

“I don’t know if they’re buying time,” Diamond said.

Caseworkers across the state face an average of 15.8 open cases, a figure that Ashcroft’s memo said has “dramatically increased” in past months. Maine is also relying on contractors to handle some allegations of child abuse and neglect that the state considers to be of low-to-moderate severity.

Meanwhile, Maine’s Office of Family and Child Services has 21.5 vacant human services positions, and positions are typically vacant for 38 days.

Lawmakers said the state must address not only the recruitment of workers but also how to retain them.

Republican Rep. Jeffrey Pierce said that caseworkers may need more support after dealing with traumatic cases.

“It’s a brutal job,” he said.

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