The Maine Department of Health and Human Services offices on State Street in Augusta, shown in this December 2017 file photo. Credit: Darren Fishell / BDN

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As Maine lawmakers again focus much of their attention on the state’s child welfare system, a new report from the Maine Child Welfare Action Network found that Maine had the highest rate of child maltreatment in the nation in 2020. Although it can be hard to compare states, this report is further cause for alarm — and action.

This comes on the heels of a report from the Maine Child Welfare Services Ombudsman that found “substantial issues” with the state’s handling of cases the ombudsman reviewed. The report said that the Maine Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) failed to gather enough information in many cases and that the office sometimes failed to recognize risk to a child. The ombudsman is an independent reviewer of the OCFS, which is a part of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The ombudsman reviewed more than 80 cases involving more than 160 children, the Portland Press Herald reported.

Members of the Maine Welfare Action Network who met with the Bangor Daily News editorial board last week were clear that the actions that are needed are not as simple as remaking the state’s Office of Child and Family Services, as some lawmakers have proposed.

Indeed, the scope of child maltreatment is so large that it can be easy to look for quick fixes that do not address the broad, underlying causes of this mistreatment.

They also emphasized that we must do a much better job of addressing the causes of family breakdowns — such as a lack of stable housing and employment, or substance use disorder and unmet mental health needs — rather than just focusing on shortcomings within the state’s child welfare system. Of course, problems within the system — such as a chronic shortage of caseworkers and lack of information sharing – must be addressed. But, by the time a family is in contact with this system, many opportunities for intervention and improvement have already been missed and the family is likely in crisis.

Debra Dunlap, a founding member of the network, emphasized the need to prioritize and address the reasons that children come into the care of the state and its affiliate agencies. The top reasons are parental substance use disorder, parental mental health needs and economic instability.

Investing more resources — and yes, that often means money — in these areas would help improve child wellbeing, long before families may need the intervention of DHHS.

In other words, Maine needs to focus on preventing child maltreatment, long before children end up in the child welfare system.

Shawn Yardley, who worked for DHHS and community service providers, emphasized the need for other entities — such as health care providers — to be more involved in child welfare. These entities can identify families that are struggling long before they may be referred to a child welfare agency.

Travis Bryant, executive director of Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine and the Kinship Program, identified one of the significant stumbling blocks to helping many families: stigma. If a family is told they will be contacted by a child welfare agency, their reaction is often negative, often fearing that their children may be taken away. They may also reject help even if they understand they need it. So, it is a challenge to find ways to support and help families that do not feel threatening.

“The department values its relationships with a variety of partners committed to child health and safety in Maine, including the Maine Child Welfare Action Network,” DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell told the BDN editorial board. “We are actively engaged with MCWAN to explore their thoughtful recommendations, including the development of a statewide plan for the prevention of child abuse and neglect.”

Not all the solutions require legislation, but as lawmakers consider ways to improve Maine’s overwhelmed child welfare system, they need to focus more resources on prevention to keep fewer children and families from needing the crisis services that are overwhelming the system. This means more funding for substance use and mental health treatment, investments in affordable housing, job training and early childhood education.

These may not seem like investments in child welfare, but they are. Investing money to support healthy families is an investment in the wellbeing of Maine’s children.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...