Comment: We know what works to keep children in Maine safe. Now is the time to act.
Following the deaths of five children earlier this year, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services asked Casey Family Programs, a national child protection agency, to conduct a study on the protection system. from the childhood of Maine. Last month, Casey Family Programs unveiled its findings, along with eight recommendations for improving the state’s child welfare system.
Maine’s child welfare system hasn’t always been in trouble. Following the death in 2001 of Logan Marr, a young foster girl, the state embarked on a major reform of its child welfare system, an effort that made it a national model. at the end of the decade.
These reforms have kept children and families out of the child welfare system while helping families struggling with abuse or neglect. In 2009, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government named Maine’s child welfare reform effort as a finalist for its Innovations in American Government Award.
Placing children in “family care”, reducing reliance on institutional settings and increasing the availability of treatment homes have all been priorities. DHHS has also invested in community programs that have kept families from becoming entangled with the courts and the child welfare system. These efforts were so successful that the number of children in government care increased from 3,239 in 2000 to 1,527 in 2011.
Unfortunately, many of the innovative interventions were canceled by the last administration. The reduction in funding for essential programs has eroded the infrastructure for child welfare and family reunification has become a lower priority. The loss of key resources, coupled with the national opioid epidemic, has resulted in a significant increase in the number of children entering the child welfare system.
Even before the opioid epidemic, a high percentage of child protection cases involved substance use. This crisis has accelerated cases of child neglect and significantly increased the number of children in state care. Currently, more than 2,100 children in Maine are in state care.
In addition to the analysis of Casey’s family programs, a state agency is conducting a formal investigation into the deaths while two legislative committees look at systemic concerns and political issues. While the DHHS has said it is already implementing the report’s recommendations, investigations and legislation are months away from moving forward.
In our respective positions as Chairs of the Committee on Health and Social Services and the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs, we offer a five-point plan to immediately improve outcomes for children and families.
• First, we have asked the Attorney General to allocate at least $ 3 million from the Opioid Drug Settlement to DHHS to help families struggling with drug addiction. In the past, similar approaches have helped families reunite and successfully manage their recovery.
• Second, DHHS and relevant state agencies must continue to develop an integrated system of services and response. Many families in the child welfare system need the help of multiple ministries. The Children’s Cabinet, which includes the Commissioners of Health and Social Services, Education, Labor, Public Safety and Corrections, is best positioned to foster integrated systems and maintain collaboration between agencies. public. We believe that this approach would be more productive than creating a separate department, as has been suggested by others.
• Third, DHHS should review cases of high risk families and offer community intervention services, including family visitation programs. Providing services to high-risk families can prevent them from slipping into the child welfare system.
• Fourth, the Office of the Child Welfare Ombudsman should be immediately allocated funds for additional staff. This would increase its ability to review individual cases and identify better ways to keep children safe and advocate for best practice based on research.
• Fifth, the Children’s Cabinet should convene a committee to develop recommendations aimed at increasing the financial well-being of families who struggle to provide appropriate care for their children. Neglect is one of the main reasons children are placed in state custody, and although neglect is often linked to substance use and mental health issues, poverty is also a factor. serious risk.
Much remains to be done before our child welfare system is once again regarded as one of the best in the country. By restoring programs and adopting policies that have been successful in the past, we believe Maine will chart a course to ensure our children are protected and able to thrive.
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