Tuesday, May 21, 2013
The number of children removed from abusive homes in Maine has declined by more than 50 percent in the past decade, as the Department of Health and Human Services has pursued a policy of keeping children with parents unless they face physical abuse or serious neglect.
Logan Marr’s mother, Christy Reposa, holds a photo of her daughter, who was asphyxiated when she was duct-taped to a highchair while in foster care. Logan’s death launched reforms that began to trend toward removing fewer children from their families.
Sally Ann Schofield, a state child caseworker who was convicted of manslaughter in the 2001 death of her 5-year-old foster child Logan Marr, is sentenced in Augusta in 2002.
The numbers mirror a national trend, supported by findings that children can suffer severe emotional trauma when separated from their families and placed in foster care.
But the Maine Sunday Telegram has found that the trend also raises concerns about whether child welfare workers are acting quickly enough in cases where children are suffering or at risk of abuse.
Those concerns came into focus last week after the death of Ethan Henderson, a 10-week-old boy whose father allegedly squeezed his head and threw the baby into a chair at the family’s home in Arundel.
Gov. Paul LePage -- a victim of abuse as a child himself -- noted that the DHHS has come under criticism in the past for removing too many children from their homes.
But the agency's policies have now swung in the opposite direction, and officials may be too slow to take children out of homes where they are in danger, the governor said.
A day care worker had contacted the DHHS about signs of potential abuse of Ethan, his twin brother and 3-year-old half sister, but the agency won't release information on when it received the report or how it responded.
The state removed about 3,200 children from their parents' homes about 10 years ago, and last year, that number was down by more than half, to about 1,500, said Therese Cahill-Lowe, director of the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Child and Family Services.
Cahill-Lowe, who has led the office for about a year, said she also thinks her agency might be erring too often on the side of leaving children in the home.
"I share the governor's concern," she said. "I do think that we seem to be not reacting in the same way we were with initial referrals (of suspicions of abuse). If in doubt, we need to react ... and safety is the paramount concern."
Cahill-Lowe said she is reviewing the department's policies on removing children from homes as part of a DHHS restructuring effort.
Many child-care advocates applaud the trend toward keeping more children out of what they say is a flawed and sometimes damaging foster care system. The overreliance on foster care and that system's problems came to the forefront in 2001, when 5-year-old Logan Marr died while in foster care.
The child was asphyxiated when her foster mother duct-taped her to a highchair, leading to investigations of foster care in Maine and launching reforms that began to trend toward removing fewer children from their families.
The majority of children whose cases are investigated by the DHHS are left with their parents, because most child abuse cases could more accurately be called cases of neglect or a lack of parenting skills, Cahill-Lowe said. DHHS workers come up with family plans to address concerns, although cases where they find actual physical abuse or instances where the neglect is so severe that a child is endangered require that children be removed from the home.
In cases where the child is left in the home, the DHHS tries to "get services into the home and get natural support in place, such as grandparents and friends," Cahill-Lowe said.
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