Multiple pairs of children's shoes sit on a family's kitchen floor. Maine DHHS said it will bring in a national group to help it investigate the deaths of four children under four in the past month. Credit: BDN file photo

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Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. Mary Callahan of Lisbon is an adoptive and foster parent.

Remember what then-Gov. Paul LePage said after the child abuse deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy? Remember what he said would stop such tragedies? He said this: “Placing the priority on family reunification forces the system and the courts to try to keep vulnerable children in a family when the best thing would be to remove the child from the situation.”

The Legislature apparently bought it. State law and policies were changed to encourage taking away more children. The current governor and the current leadership at the Department of Health and Human Services have not stopped the influx of children into foster care that followed. It is a classic foster-care panic; a sharp sudden surge in removals as caseworkers, terrified of having the next tragedy on their caseload, rushed to tear apart families needlessly.

The number of children taken from their families skyrocketed, and went up 50 percent by 2019. That year Maine took away 1,246 children — the highest number since 1999. This rate is nearly 40 percent above the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.

But, as we all know now, the child deaths didn’t stop. That is as predictable as it is tragic. In fact, we predicted it.

That’s because LePage, and apparently Gov. Janet Mills as well, have bought into the Big Lie of American child welfare; that child safety and family preservation are opposites that need to be balanced, and that child removal equals child safety.

Most cases are nothing like the tragedies that make headlines; far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. That’s one reason why study after study finds that in typical cases, children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care. Although Department of Health and Human Services caseworkers almost always mean well, the trauma for children needlessly taken in Maine is the same as that inflicted on children needlessly taken at the Mexican border during the Trump Administration.

The deluge of false reports, trivial cases and poverty cases overloads workers, leaving them no time to investigate any case thoroughly, stealing away their time from finding the few children in real danger. That’s why the consequences of foster care panic in Maine were so predictable.

Christy Baker sits outside the State House following a news conference Monday, April 23, 2001, in Augusta. Baker holds a photo of her daughter, Logan Marr, 5, who died on Jan. 31, 2001, while in foster care. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

A foster care panic also increases the already high risk of abuse in foster care itself. Multiple studies find abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes; the rate in group homes and institutions is even worse. Maine should not need to be reminded of this – it became the national example of such tragedy just over 20 years ago. That’s when Logan Marr, taken because of her mother’s poverty, was killed by her foster mother, a former child welfare caseworker.

Maine learned the right lessons from that tragedy. Then-Gov. John Baldacci brought in visionary leadership that rebuilt the child welfare system to emphasize safe, proven approaches to keeping families together. Foster care was dramatically reduced and child safety improved.   Maine was hailed as a national model.

Now Maine child welfare is again at a crossroads. Some want the state to double down on failure, further expanding the net of surveillance of families, even though studies show this approach backfires – driving families away from seeking help and overloading the system.

The better alternative is to go back to the lessons learned nearly two decades ago. The better alternative is to honor the memory of Logan Marr – and yes, the memories of those killed in their own homes, too – by returning to the only approach proven to work in Maine or anywhere else: Doing more to keep families out of the system and keep children out of foster care.