ORONO, Maine — Instead of asking a drug-addicted parent, “What’s wrong with you?” a partnership of nearly three dozen agencies and providers in eastern Maine is now going to ask, “What happened to you?”

The Penquis Regional Linking Project is attempting to make a cultural change by using trauma-informed treatment designed to break down barriers. It also is connecting families dealing with drug addiction to local resources to create a better home for drug-exposed infants and young children.

“This is the fruition of about five years of work caring for babies who are substance-exposed in the hospital,” Dr. Mark Brown, chief of pediatrics and neonatology at Eastern Maine Medical Center, said last week during a conference at the University of Maine to roll out the new project to all the partnering agencies.

“We have been able to create a continuum for them that is seamless from the prenatal care, and caring for them in the hospital, to now linking them to services in the community,” the pediatric doctor said. “Oftentimes the services the family could benefit from and need, the family doesn’t know about or they can’t access them.”

In Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, pregnant drug users and families dealing with substance abuse problems who have children age 5 and younger will be connected with a specially trained and nonjudgmental “navigator” who will help connect them with services — hospital visits, parenting education classes and other family-driven support programs — and assist them with transportation needs, thanks to a $3.9 million federal grant.

The grant was awarded to 17 groups around the country that had projects “designed to increase the well-being of, improve permanency outcomes for, and enhance the safety of children who are in out-of-home placements or are at risk of being placed in out-of-home placements as a result of a parent’s or caretaker’s substance abuse,” the grant’s application states.

“This is the population that tends … to be a higher cost to the state,” Don Lynch, spokesman for Families And Children Together, a Bangor-based agency, said of families struggling with drug abuse.

If parents who are using drugs are taught skills that prevent the Maine Department of Health and Human Services from removing their children to foster care, it’s good for the child, the family and the state’s pocketbook, he said.

“No matter where you are in the recovery process, we may be able to help,” a brochure about the new program states.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families issued the grant to the partnership and will provide about $800,000 annually for five years.

Families And Children Together and the UMaine School of Social Work are leading the coalition.

The conference, held last week and attended by more than 400 local providers, was designed to get everyone on the same page about trauma-informed care and have everyone using the same vocabulary.

When “different agencies inside our communities are talking the same language [the service providers] have a better understanding [of] where they are coming from,” Lynch said of the parents.

Trauma-informed care is “an approach to engage people with histories of trauma that recognizes the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledges the role that trauma has played in their lives,” a brochure from the conference states.

The principles of trauma-informed care are especially applicable when working with families struggling with substance abuse, as a large majority of these families have a history of trauma and adverse childhood experiences, the information states.

There has been a huge increase in the number of babies born in Maine exposed to drugs, from 165 in 2005 to 667 in 2011, according to data collected by Jennifer Middleton, a UMaine assistant professor of social work and the lead researcher on the linking project.

This is a trickle-down effect of Maine’s opiate addiction rate, which is the highest in the country per capita, at 386 per 100,000, compared with the national average of just 45 per 100,000, Middleton said.

Opioid-exposed births at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor are increasing at an alarming rate, jumping from 23 in 2003 to 183 in 2012, according to data provided by Brown.

“The overall goal is to create a huge community safety net,” the EMMC pediatrics doctor said.

The resources in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties that families will be linked to through the Penquis Regional Linking Project are nothing new, said project coordinator Joanna Russell.

“This isn’t an idea. It’s on the ground and it’s working,” she said. “This is not a concept. It’s in action.”

Project leaders also will work to integrate vocabulary and knowledge about trauma-informed care into policies, procedures and practices, Russell said.

The partnership, which includes 34 child welfare organizations, including the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, social service agencies, court officials, health care organizations, substance abuse treatment centers, public health groups, Husson University and UMaine, can only get stronger as word spreads, Russell said.

Another goal is to break down barriers created by stereotypes of drug addicts.

“It’s not them and us,” Lynch said. “If we open our arms and work together, we are stronger.”

Those who want to learn more about the Penquis Regional Linking Project can contact project coordinator Joanna Russell at 941-2347 or jrussell@familiesandchildren.org.

Resources from the conference have been posted on the Wings for Children and Families website, wingsinc.org.