ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Children are not numbers. They are flesh-and-blood human beings who deserve our best efforts to help them grow up safe and healthy. But if policymakers don’t understand the numbers, they’ll never be able to craft the right policies to help those flesh-and-blood children.

A Maine Sunday Telegram story about Maine’s efforts to curb the needless removal of children from their homes omitted some crucial numbers and misunderstood others (“Number of Maine children taken from abuse decreases by half,” May 13).

For starters, there’s the most important number, the one that measures safety.

No state can prevent every child abuse death. Though each is the worst form of tragedy, let us be grateful that the number is low enough to rise or fall due to random chance — especially in a small state like Maine.

That’s why the U.S. government uses a different measure: the percentage of children reabused in any way after their cases become known.

Since Maine began its reforms in 2003, that percentage has declined by 20 percent. With caseworkers spending less time on false allegations and trivial cases, they have found more children in real danger and made Maine’s children safer than they were during the era of take-the-child-and-run — the era to which Maine’s governor apparently wants to return.

That success helps explain why, by 2009, the child welfare transformation in Maine was a finalist for Harvard’s prestigious Innovations in American Government Awards.

The claim that the number of children removed from their homes in Maine has declined by 50 percent is flat-out false. All it takes is two clicks of a mouse to prove it.

Every state must report these data to the federal government. In Maine, the number of children removed over the course of a year peaked at 1,052 in 2000 and 1,047 in 2001. Readers can find the data online at

The number of removals fell after the death of Logan Marr, taken needlessly from her mother only to die at the hands of her foster mother, shocked the conscience of the state — and after the PBS program “Frontline” exposed the failure of Maine’s former approach to child welfare to the entire nation.

In 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, 760 children were taken from their families in Maine. The data are available

So yes, entries declined, and rightly so — but by about 27 percent, not 50 percent.

The number that fell by about 50 percent is the number of children trapped in foster care on Sept. 30 of each year. But that number can rise or fall for reasons totally unrelated to whether more or fewer children are taken away in the first place.

Children taken more than a decade ago, during the heyday of Maine’s take-the-child-and-run approach, may simply “age out” of the system with no place to go.

Other children, like the suspect in the death of Ethan Henderson, are adopted after enduring years of bouncing from foster home to foster home and, sometimes, abuse in foster care itself.

My organization compares the propensity of states to take children from their homes by comparing entries into care to the number of impoverished children living in each state.

By that standard, Maine still takes away children at a rate slightly above the national average. Maine’s child welfare reforms need to be strengthened, not reversed.

Study after study has found that, when a child really must be taken from her or his home, placing that child with relatives is more stable, better for children’s well-being, and most important, safer than what should properly be called “stranger care.”

Maine used to be among the worst in the nation in using kinship care. Now it is slightly above the national average, but still well behind national leaders.

And finally, one more number: 15,000. That’s the number of cases examined in two massive studies of how children fared in typical cases seen by workers for agencies like the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

In those typical cases, the children left in their own homes typically fared better even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care.

That doesn’t mean no child ever should be taken from her or his home. Rather, it means that foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses.

A little girl named Logan Marr had to lose her life before Maine learned that lesson. To forget that lesson now would be like spitting on her grave.

Richard Wexler is the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, based in Alexandria, Va.