The Maine Department of Health and Human Services offices on State Street in Augusta, shown in this December 2017 file photo.

The Maine Legislature has increasingly recognized the important role that extended family members can play in the lives of kids whose parents are unable to take care of them. But these relative caregivers are still not receiving all of the help they need.

As we’ve seen in headlines in recent years, many Maine families are facing tough questions about the care of children whose parents are struggling with substance use disorders and related problems such as homelessness, poverty, illness, and incarceration. Members of children’s extended family — grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings — frequently need to step in, often in emergencies, to take them into their care. In some cases, the relatives do so at the request of the Department of Health and Human Services, and in others, the family attempts to address the child’s needs on its own.

The Maine Legislature has responded to the growing need for relative caregivers to serve as “kinship families” in the public child welfare system and for children who are not in DHHS custody. On Sept. 1, a major revision of Maine’s minor guardianship law goes into effect, and the reforms are aimed specifically at providing more tools for courts to help children and families who must use this form of private child protection.

Maine has had a minor guardianship law since its founding. Originally the law was to appoint an adult to manage the property of orphans. Today, children need guardians for a far different purpose: to ensure that a nonparent caregiver of a child, usually another relative, has the legal authority to care for a child. Accessing medical care, enrolling in school and applying for safety-net benefits are all made easier by this law. Until the newly enacted reforms, Maine’s guardianship law did not include language that would help a court craft orders that reflected the specific situations of kinship families: a child’s parents are still alive but temporarily unable to be a primary caregiver.

The revised guardianship law does many things to help today’s children and families. It provides a specific legal standard by which the judge can determine the suitability of a person who is asking to be appointed as a guardian. It ensures that parents who consent to the appointment of guardian — as is true in the vast majority of cases — are informed about what the appointment means for their parental rights. It requires guardianship orders to include the reasons for the appointment and to describe the rights and responsibilities of the child’s parents while the appointment is in place.

The guardianship law also gives judges the authority to appoint a guardian ad litem to provide recommendations about the child’s best interests and to require guardians to provide regular reports to the court about the child’s wellbeing. It allows judges to send the parties to mediation to work out the terms of the appointment through an agreement, rather than putting the family through a long and painful litigation process. It also enables judges to design a plan for reunification of the parent and child, where appropriate and in the child’s best interest.

But these new laws are not enough to meet the complex needs of Maine’s kinship families. Because relatives appointed as guardians are providing care outside of the public child welfare system, they are not eligible for foster care subsidies nor is the state responsible for providing services for the children and their parents. Many kinship families, therefore, face a difficult trade-off when they serve as guardians and keep children out of Maine’s overwhelmed child welfare system. Maine can do better by these families by ensuring that they have access to information, support and services, including legal aid.

While the Legislature should be applauded for enacting much-needed reforms, it should continue to find ways to help Maine’s families in crisis. It has an opportunity to do so with LD 633, “An Act To Create a Kinship Care Navigator Program within the Department of Health and Human Services.” It would establish a program in DHHS “to provide resources and information to persons providing kinship care to children in the State,” regardless of whether DHHS was involved with the placement of the child. The Legislature should enact the bill and fund this much-needed program, as many other states have already done.

Deirdre M. Smith is a professor at the University of Maine School of Law. These are her views and do not express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine School of Law. She is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.