In this Dec. 1, 2017, file photo, ornaments hang on a Christmas tree on display in New York. Credit: Swayne B. Hall / AP

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Laura Cyr is a director of strategic projects at the University of Maine System. These are her views and do not express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine. Her research typically focuses on student loan debt relief and public higher education. She is a member of the Maine chapter 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.

This year, my toddler nephew spent Christmas away from the only home he remembers. He has been in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services for half his life. The amount of time that children remain in custody negatively impacts their ability to thrive.

The average length of time Maine children stay in foster care is 38 months. The Maine Office of Child and Family Services receives reports of child abuse or neglect, finding safe placements and permanent homes for the children in their care.

If my nephew remains much longer in DHHS custody, most of the durable memories of his childhood will have been made with strangers. He is a vibrant, active, clever, funny and sensitive toddler who yearns to be a part of a whole, craves inclusion and wants to come home.

My experience with family services began in February 2019 when my then-2-year-old nephew was temporarily placed with us after having been removed from his abusive and neglectful home. The office acted swiftly on his behalf, and for that, I am grateful.

However, since that date, I have observed its caseworkers and supervisors struggle to answer phone calls, fail to successfully manage their caseload, misunderstand regulations and misrepresent changing directives regarding the placement and care of my nephew.

The preferred practice at family services is to reunify a child with their biological parent(s). Unfortunately, for some children, that is not possible and alternative permanent placements must be found. My nephew’s mother relinquished her rights to her son. My family is now waiting for the office to file the paperwork that will begin the process of bringing him home with us permanently.

Despite acknowledging the delays caused by court backlogs (more than six months) and COVID-19 precautions, this critical step has been slowed down. This is not the first time we have been on the receiving end of paperwork delays from this office. Many of our obligations as kinship placements were not shared with us, creating significant delays in accessing services on behalf of my nephew.

These delays stalled important evaluations that could have provided my nephew with additional support services. Although there are policies detailing the processes for care, the information is not readily shared by caseworkers, is difficult to find, and in our case, were not always followed.

According to its website, the family services office believes children are entitled to a safe and nurturing family. That introduction also states that they support placements that promote family and community connections and healthy social development. Fortunately, my nephew has mostly benefited from caring and professional foster placements. But a placement is not a home, and a foster parent is not family.

Children thrive when they have stable homes. Furthermore, research shows that the longer children are in foster care, the more placements they have. Children with diagnosed needs are three times more likely to have multiple placements than a child without a diagnosis. Multiple placements contribute to long-term adverse outcomes: impaired development of healthy relationships, underperformance in school and homelessness are common among youth and adults who have experienced foster care.

How can family services claim it is doing a good job for my nephew when a safe, stable and permanent home is waiting with open arms that remain empty because of administrative delays? Our family, and so many others who are waiting to bring home their loved ones, suffers from the very shortfalls that the Child Welfare Ombudsman reported one year ago.

While we wait, we decorated our Christmas tree without him, hung his stocking and put away the wrapped presents we would have given him this year. We are left to wonder if we will be able to rebuild our family or if repeated administrative missteps will keep us apart for another year. My nephew, along with the approximate 2,000 other Maine children in foster care this year, is facing a season of joy and togetherness with the stark reminder that he is alone. Separated from family during a time that is supposed to be centered on family.