Nearly 2,000 children are living in Maine’s foster care system, far outpacing the number of approved foster and adoptive families. While the Office of Child and Family Services issued a plea last month for more families to open their homes to children in foster care, we must do more to end this tragedy and ensure our children grow up in safe, loving homes.

Eight of our colleagues in the Legislature are standing beside us to respond to this urgent need, sponsoring legislation that mobilizes the local community to prevent abuse and neglect by supporting families in crisis and helping them stay together. Our bill, LD 1065, the Strengthening Families Act, empowers parents or guardians to provide for the short-term care of a child when life circumstances prevent them from doing so. Our goal is to protect families and their rights while giving them the courage to ask for help before the challenges they face spiral out of control.

In many cases, abuse and neglect happen when a parent is in crisis and, feeling overwhelmed and with nowhere else to turn, makes a series of poor choices that often make a bad situation worse. Just consider a mother dealing with job loss, eviction, domestic violence, homelessness or even a hospitalization or jail time. If she lacks supportive extended family and friends, where can she turn?

Unfortunately, the foster care system often is not adequately equipped or designed to reach families until it is too late, and the state only becomes involved with a family after there is sufficient reason to believe abuse or neglect has occurred. With the Strengthening Families Act, fewer children will enter foster care because of abuse or neglect, creating a greater number of strong, intact families throughout Maine.

The Strengthening Families Act improves existing law by providing greater certainty for families in need in a number of ways.

First, the bill clarifies that a temporary delegation of powers does not deprive any parent or guardian of their rights with respect to the child.

Second, it provides that a power of attorney providing for the temporary care of the child does not, by itself, constitute abandonment, abuse or neglect.

Finally, we distinguish the type of temporary care provided under this law from foster care to further protect parental rights and ensure timely family reunification.

Each of these provisions provides essential parental rights protections to give families the courage to step out of the shadows and ask for help. Although we commend our public servants for the work they do protecting children, we all understand government has the power to permanently remove children from their families. This power, while important for rescuing children from dangerous environments, can leave families afraid to approach the state when they are in need of help. Through the bill’s new protections, a family can now seek the help they need without fear.

This bill was inspired by the work of Safe Families for Children, a nonprofit organization already having great success helping families right here in Maine. Founded in Chicago in 2003, Safe Families provides early-intervention services to support families in crisis. Through a network of volunteer families and other local charities, Safe Families works to provide families in need with a loving, supportive community they can turn to when times get tough.

The concept is simple, based on the fundamental value of neighbors helping neighbors. And, unlike foster care, Safe Families encourages the host family to build a relationship with the child’s family, providing the additional benefit of a lasting friendship. Safe Families operates in Down East Maine, as well as central and southern Maine, and has hosted more than 700 children since 2009. And more than 98 percent of children hosted since 2009 have been reunited with their families without ever entering foster care.

This is a bipartisan commitment to protecting Maine’s children and families. Through the Strengthening Families Act and the work of community organizations such as Safe Families for Children, we can dramatically reduce the number of children who enter foster care in Maine.

We encourage our colleagues in the Legislature to join us in supporting this important piece of legislation, and we want to support and expand upon the compassion already shown by our fellow Mainers who open their hearts and homes to their neighbors in need.

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, represents District 88 in the Maine House. Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Stanley, represents House District 143.