In this March 8, 2023, Amanda Barlow plays dolls with her 4-year-old twin daughters, Elizabeth (left) and Lillian Hall, after school. Her son, 6-year-old Bryson Hall, relaxes on the couch. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Stephanie Eglinton is the executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance.

Now is the time to invest in children and families.

We know that the pandemic created additional hardships for children and families in Maine and nationally. It brought to light the important role of schools in providing services to children beyond education, the fragility of the child care sector, growing youth mental health concerns and the difficulties many families face in meeting basic needs.

The Maine Children’s Alliance recently released the 2023 KIDS COUNT Data Book on the well-being of Maine children and families. Feedback from across the state and political spectrum has been clear and consistent, and the data are sobering. Approximately 34,000 Maine children live in poverty. Child maltreatment is high. Maine youth are facing unprecedented mental health issues. Significant disparities persist across indicators when disaggregated by income, race and ethnicity, geography and other factors.

These problems feel big and intractable. And yet, we know what works to prevent and solve many of these issues — and Maine has the policy solutions and funding to address them. By taking action today, we can create the conditions for Maine families to thrive and provide healthy futures for our children.

Children and families need all of us to advocate for effective solutions. We outline these solutions in the data book and ask our communities and lawmakers to advance them to ensure all Maine families can thrive. High-level solutions related to child poverty, maltreatment and mental health include:

Poverty: Federal pandemic relief demonstrated the power of cash support and tax credits to reduce child poverty. We must advocate to reinstate the federal Child Tax Credit expansion and push for a state Child Tax Credit that is available to all families. Additional solutions include supporting the development of affordable multifamily housing and reducing the barriers to public anti-poverty programs.

Maltreatment: To prevent child abuse and neglect, we must invest in strategies and programs that strengthen families and decrease the need for child protective intervention. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Child Welfare Action Network, convened by the Maine Children’s Alliance, are working together right now to develop a statewide child safety and well-being plan.

Mental Health: Youth with mental health concerns need access to timely and appropriate treatment and services. We must support proposed investments in the budget before the Legislature that will increase access to mental health and substance use disorder services. These services are critical to increasing the well-being of Maine families and preventing crises.

We must also look at leveling the playing field for historically excluded communities. Achieving equity requires targeted solutions that better address the specific situations of different populations. However, we cannot let highlighting disparities result in perpetuating bias and disregarding a group’s strengths. The problems lie with our systems, not the people affected by them. As we move this work forward together, we can advocate for better and more inclusive data collection, and further explore the root causes and impacts of structural racism and oppression at all levels.

All Mainers benefit when every child gets what they need to have a healthy, happy childhood and a positive path to adulthood. Maine families need access to education and good-paying jobs, quality and reliable child care, safe and affordable housing, reliable transportation, affordable health care and economic support when they just can’t make ends meet.

Yes, much of the KIDS COUNT data are hard to read. We all want children to thrive in strong, healthy families. So, let’s focus on the solutions that we know will move Maine toward that vision. Now is the time for policymakers, advocates, organizations, schools and parents to commit to policies and investments that improve outcomes for child and family well-being. Maine’s children are counting on us. We hope you will join us in the call to action.