Nobody wants a youngster to be separated from his or her biological parents. But nobody can say for certain why this is happening more and more often to Maine’s children.

In September 2011, the number of Maine kids in state custody started to rise, reversing a 10-year decline. As of last month, just over 1,800 children were in state care. By June 30 (the end of the fiscal year), this figure could reach 1,900 — 35 percent higher than projected, says state Office of Child and Family Services director Therese Cahill-Low.

Obviously, this is a complicated problem with many facets. A report in the Maine Sunday Telegram has explored the varying extent to which Department of Health and Human Services mismanagement, cuts in other social services and drug abuse by young parents have contributed to the rise in foster care placements.

It’s clear that the actions of state lawmakers and state regulators could have done more to prevent the increase in the number of children in state care. These two groups need to make major reforms and work together to figure how best to channel the state’s resources toward keeping families intact.

THE IMPACT OF SOCIAL SERVICES CUTS

Lawmakers have backed reductions in spending that affected programs that help keep children with their biological families or find them a safe, permanent home with other families.

Examples of services hit hard by the cuts are kinship care, which places a child with a relative rather than a foster home; “wraparound” counseling and education for families of at-risk children, and support for foster care adoptive parents, to prevent disruptions that send kids back into the foster care system, says state Rep. Dick Farnsworth, Health and Human Services Committee co-chairman.

Although state social services in Maine have weathered high-profile spending cuts since Paul LePage was elected governor, they didn’t begin with him, and it would be wrong and unfair to place the responsibility for the foster-care situation solely on his administration.

Farnsworth says reductions in services that affect the foster care system date to the administration of Gov. John Baldacci, in a process that Farnsworth, a Portland Democrat, calls “death by a thousand paper cuts.”

SINGLING OUT DRUG ABUSE

Drug abuse also plays a conspicuous role in discussions of the reason for increased foster-care placements. The current headline-grabber is the surge in popularity of the synthetic hallucinogen known as bath salts.

Indeed, “verbal reports” by DHHS caseworkers about the link between a rise in the incidence of child neglect and a rise in the use of bath salts swayed lawmakers in January into covering a $4.2 million shortfall in the supplemental state foster care and adoption budget.

“You hear that and it rips your heart out,” said another Health and Human Services Committee member, Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock. Lawmakers, however, need to be guided by their heads as much as their hearts when deciding how best to direct scarce financial resources.

While we don’t expect lawmakers to suppress their natural human emotions, we do expect them to rely on facts, not anecdotes. In this situation, legislators didn’t require the DHHS to further explain the $4.2 million gap.

SUBSTANTIVE DATA MISSING

In fact, the DHHS had little substantive data to back up its assertion that the rise in foster placements can be attributed to an increase in drug abuse by birth parents. The agency cited a survey based on caseworkers’ reports over the past two years.

The chart doesn’t allow comparison to previous years; it excludes broader social risk factors, such as whether the parent has a job, and it doesn’t show links among risk factors, such as cases of neglect resulting from alcohol or drug abuse.

And when the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram itself tried to identify trends that might explain the recent rise in foster-care placements, the newspaper was hindered by the DHHS’ multiple computer systems and limited data-collection practices.

LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE

We’re heartened by the fact that Farnsworth promises that the biennial Office of Child and Family Services budget will receive more scrutiny than the supplemental spending proposal, and we hope that this proves to be the rule and not the exception for future budget-writing processes.

Legislators must demand objective and conclusive data from all state agencies before making budget decisions. They also need to provide these agencies with the funds to collect and interpret this data.

The Office of Child and Family Services, for its part, has to step up and use the information that it collects to analyze trends with an eye toward long-term budget planning.

Of course, valid conclusions about program effectiveness must take into account socioeconomic and other differences between the people being served one year and those served the next. However, it’s hard to imagine how the Office of Child and Family Services, the Legislature or the people of Maine can find out which programs are working for the greatest number of people without following the programs’ progress over time.

Ultimately, state policymakers, child welfare professionals and Maine families all want Maine’s children to grow up in secure, safe surroundings. There undoubtedly will be debates over the best way to accomplish this goal.

We also can be sure, however, that if lawmakers and regulators aren’t held accountable, we will not reach this goal, and the people who will be hurt most are the children who are hurting already.