BRUNSWICK – It was with great interest that I read this paper’s review of Maine’s child welfare system.

Ten months after Logan Marr was killed 10 years ago, I began working as legislative and public affairs director at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Four years later, I left state service and started a law practice representing parents in child custody cases. I currently participate on the Maine Bar Association subcommittee that reviews child protection issues.

The changes at DHHS are significant. They have reduced the number of children in care and increased the number of children who, after taken into custody, are placed with relatives. Training and recruitment of foster parents has improved. The system is much better today than it was 10 years ago.

FINDING A BETTER WAY

But focusing on these numbers makes the assumption that the system we are improving is the right system. Regrettably, the crucial question remains unanswered — is there a better way we can serve these children?

Having seen both sides of the issue, I’m profoundly troubled with the reality that we still don’t have a way to assess whether our child welfare system helps these children, or makes things worse for them.

Can we be sure that all children taken from their parents are better off than if they had stayed with those parents?

Nobody would dispute that a child in immediate danger should be removed from the home. But what are we doing with these children once they are removed?

Maine spends $300 million on child welfare every year — approximately $200,000 for every child in DHHS custody. Much of this money is spent on lawyers, guardians, expert witnesses and court costs — not on children. Or it’s spent on programs that are supposed to help parents, but which may not address the underlying problem.

DHHS often requires parents to enroll in “parenting classes” as a step to regaining custody of their children. As yet, there is no credible peer-reviewed evidence in Maine, or nationally, that these classes help to reduce child abuse and neglect.

Are there other ways we could spend that $300 million?

The fundamental premise of our criminal justice system is that it is better to let 99 guilty people go free than to convict one innocent person.

Perhaps the time has come for us to reform our child welfare system on a similar premise — that is, we must be sure that children removed from their parents are going to have significantly better outcomes than if they had stayed with their parents. And if we can’t be sure of this, then we should use our money for these children in a different way.

Defenders of the system may disagree with that idea, but consider this — DHHS caseworkers are conscientious, thoughtful public servants. They want to improve the lives of children.

The current system, however, regularly puts them into conflict with parents. Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to implement programs that free caseworkers from this adversarial situation and allow them to use their skills towards solutions that strengthen, rather than weaken, the family structure?

Unfortunately, the federal statute that funds child welfare, known as Title 4E, is a straitjacket.

In order for Maine to receive the federal funding that makes up two-thirds of our child welfare budget, we must spend it on programs that fit into the existing child welfare scheme — like parenting classes.

Doesn’t it make more sense to scale back this system, focus on the most serious child abuse cases, and spend money on programs that could deliver better results for a larger group of children, such as early childhood development?

This is what’s happening in Florida. In 2007, that state received a waiver from the federal government to spend its Title 4E funds on something other than typical child welfare programs.

Florida reduced the number of children entering its system and used the money toward building an infrastructure focused on child abuse prevention and family preservation.

Gov. LePage has said that what’s best for Maine does not always originate in Washington. As it pertains to our child welfare system, he is absolutely right.

LABORATORIES OF INNOVATION

Individual states should be laboratories of innovation for child welfare, as they have been on issues such as access to prescription drugs, health care and welfare reform.

Surprisingly, Congress currently has suspended granting any Title 4E waivers, the provision that made Florida’s reform possible.

Congress must reinstate those waivers immediately so that states are not stifled by a federal “one size fits all” approach. This will be in the best interests of all Maine families. 

– Special to the Telegram