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Maine Voices: State funding is needed to ensure the safety of Maine children

To truly recognize April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, investing in abuse and neglect prevention alongside improvements to the intervention system is esse

 

BY MICHELE MEYER AND MELISSA HACKETTSPECIAL TO THE PRESS HERALD

 

The Maine Legislature recently approved a joint resolution recognizing April as Child Abuse Prevention Month. Now is the time to act on that commitment. In these final weeks of the legislative session, Maine lawmakers have the opportunity to devote resources in the budget to prevent child maltreatment and support Maine families in safely caring for their children.


Last summer, four Maine children died in cases where their parents were charged with abuse or neglect. As these tragedies call us to action, it is important to remember that Maine’s child welfare system was not always struggling. In the wake of another tragedy in 2001, the state embarked on a major reform of child welfare, and became a national model by the end of the decade. Those efforts were so successful that the number of children in state custody dropped from 3,239 in 2000 to 1,527 by 2011.


Since then, reduced investment has weakened services critical to stabilizing and strengthening families. The opioid epidemic and pandemic have exacerbated the issue. In November 2021, 2,282 children were in state custody, a 25 percent increase from July 2018.


Following the tragedies last summer, there has been increased scrutiny placed on Maine’s child welfare system. State lawmakers have directed their attention to identifying solutions, and the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability released a report recently recommending that the state of Maine reduce caseworker and supervisor workloads, increase the availability of support services for families and enhance efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect.


Many families experience challenges in providing care for their children and could benefit from support. While abuse represents a serious risk for children, 76 percent of child maltreatment substantiations in 2020 were not physical abuse, but neglect or emotional abuse, often related to parental mental health and substance use disorders. When parents cannot safely care for their children, family members often become involved as caregivers. In Maine, roughly 9,000 children are being raised by kin, and an estimated 5,224 grandparents are raising their grandchildren.


Focusing on prevention alongside improvements to the intervention system is essential. Preventing maltreatment reduces the strain on the child protective system, making it more effective and ready to intervene when families are in crisis and children are unsafe. We know the risk factors for child maltreatment, and the protective factors that can prevent it. Protective factors include economic security; having basic needs met like food, housing, health care and education, and the presence of strong social supports. Research has shown these community conditions make it less likely child maltreatment will occur.


Legislation introduced this session would focus on prevention by addressing risk factors of child abuse and neglect and providing support for families experiencing challenges. L.D. 393 would establish a position to lead the development and coordination of statewide child abuse and neglect prevention activities. It would also increase assistance for grandparents and kinship families in accessing resources to help them raise children in their care. L.D. 1850 would provide care coordination using high-fidelity wraparound, a planning and facilitation process, for families once an allegation of abuse or neglect is made. This low-barrier model “wraps” community-based services around families in need of support and was critical to the success of Maine’s previous child welfare reform efforts.


In Augusta, state lawmakers have the opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to investing in the safety and well-being of children and families. This month, to truly recognize April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, we can prevent abuse and neglect by funding these efforts in the budget. Join us as we work together now, and in all the months ahead, to ensure every child in Maine can grow up safe and supported.

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