April 9, 2013

Maine Voices: We all play a role in protecting Maine's kids, supporting at-risk families

The state continues to take steps to improve its system and laws to ensure the safety of Maine's children.

By Therese Cahill-Low

AUGUSTA - I read with great interest the special report by Kelley Bouchard on the challenges in the foster care system ("Poor planning adds to state's foster care crisis," March 24).

I appreciate the focus on our families who continue to provide critical services and a caring environment for children in need. The article brings attention to the challenge that many states are facing when it comes to parents who are using substances and the increase of kids in coming into the state's care.

In child protection, there will always be some people who believe the government does too much, while others believe it doesn't do enough. Some people believe it's laudable to have a lower number of children in the state's care, while others question how many more children are being abused and/or neglected and may be vulnerable.

Which is better for children: being in state care or not? You can find research to support both sides of that argument. The simplest answer is that the right number of children in state care is the number of children who are in jeopardy and in need of protection -- and not one child more.

When it comes to protecting Maine's children and supporting at-risk families, we all play an important part.

The role of state government is clear when it comes to child protective services. The Department of Health and Human Services is mandated by law to investigate reported cases of child abuse and neglect that put a child's health and safety in imminent jeopardy or risk. Even then, the court has to agree with us before a child enters state care.

The department works with many others during the process of evaluating children's safety, including, but not limited to, school personnel, law enforcement officers, community agencies, guardians ad litem, the Attorney General's Office and the courts.

This administration recognizes the critical role that government plays in ensuring that our children are safe, and it has continued to make the needed investments, despite these challenging and difficult economic times.

We continue to take steps to improve our system and our laws to assure the safety and well-being of Maine's children.

The governor has proposed legislation to strengthen the law that requires certain professionals to report suspected abuse and neglect. Part of this law makes it mandatory to undergo training in how to report.

Other changes in the system include a focus on improving foster care, determining better supports for other members of families who care for a child in care and, perhaps most importantly, a focus on prevention and early intervention. We want to help support families prior to any crisis that may put a child in jeopardy.

Currently, we have 573 children (340 families) who are not in the state's care, but who are at a high risk for coming into state care. We work with parents of these children to help support them in getting to a place where they can provide a safe environment for their children and family.

For those parents in need of mental health services, substance abuse treatment or both, they need to become involved in treatment.

This commitment and participation will allow child welfare staff to work with the family on a safety plan to ensure that children are safe and that the likely result is their children not coming into the state's care. Unfortunately, those actively using and not seeking treatment are neglecting their children as a result.

We want to support families before the risk is high because the state does not make a great parent. As much as possible, children need to be a part of a family.

Raising children is not easy, and parents may find they need support. This is where the Office of Child and Family Services wants to be involved.

I urge all Mainers to consider their role in ensuring the safety and well-being of children.

I encourage you that if you witness something that you believe is indicative of abuse or neglect to call our Child Protective Services hotline at (800) 452-1999 (Voice) 711 (Maine Relay).

The child abuse hotline is staffed 24 hours a day.

In addition, we are always looking for people who would like to make a difference in the lives of children in need by choosing to be foster or adoptive parents.

If you would like to learn more, please go to http://www.maine.gov/dhhs/ocfs/cw/fosteradopt.shtml for local information, or contact one of our community partners, Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine, at http://www.affm.net/ or call 1-800-833-9786.

We must all work together to assure that Maine's children and families have the best opportunities to live safe, healthy, happy and productive lives.

Therese Cahill-Low is director of the Office of Child and Family Services for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

 – Special to the Press Herald

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