As a father of six children, I know the struggle it has been for Maine families as we attempt to juggle home, school, and work life during this tumultuous year. I can’t imagine the strain placed on parents who are unemployed. The roll-out of a vaccine to COVID-19 has us quaking in anticipation for a return to normal. The ability to get back to work, easily travel, and congregate with loved ones and complete strangers opens our imagination to a life unfettered by disease, social isolation, and economic devastation. While we foresee the eventual end to the pandemic, for many children returning to pre-COVID normal is not a promising future.

The challenges faced by many children prior to COVID were daunting. Even before the pandemic, our state permitted 14,000 children to suffer in deep poverty, living on less than $12,600 a year for a family of four. (That’s enough children to fill 195 school buses!) During the 2017-2018 school year, Maine public schools reported 2,443 public school students experiencing homelessness. One in five children live with hunger; 34 states have better food security for children than Maine.

Prior to 2020, more than 2,000 Maine children experienced abuse or neglect and were placed in foster care, and annually approximately 75 young people “age out” of foster care, having never found a forever family. Each year more than 900 babies are born drug-affected in Maine (1 for every 12 babies born in Maine). And, despite research that shows putting juveniles behind bars is a failed model that has long-term, negative psycho-social outcomes, we still have nearly 40 youth locked up in Long Creek.

While their little bones and brains mature, we make children wait for needed services. In 2019, nearly 3,000 children and adults languished on waiting lists for home-and-community-based mental health support services. Can you imagine the stress parents face when they reach out to receive intervention and treatment for children with behavioral disruptions and have to wait months or more to receive support? In Maine, the child and teen suicide rate has risen by 50 percent between 2008 and 2017. Working families struggle to find childcare services. Between 2010 and 2016 the number of family-based childcare businesses, the most common in rural communities, declined by 28 percent.

Is this the normal we wish to return? Whatever good comes from the vaccines, Maine must no longer accept harm and deprivation of children. So, after COVID is in our rearview mirrors, I hope you will do more than simply return to the mall, eat out at your favorite restaurant, or take a vacation to another state. I hope you will use the opportunity to gather with others to talk about how your community is supporting the poorest, most vulnerable, and isolated children.

You may become overwhelmed with the complexity and volume of the challenges we face, but you must never doubt our ability to positively impact the trajectory of a child’s life. There are simple steps you can take to improve chances for children.

Be the family on your block that welcomes other children to hang out or simply talk to children and show interest in them. Become a mentor, coach, or volunteer with your local school, child-serving organizations, faith communities or clubs. Attend parent-teacher association meetings. Work to ensure that your local school district has a plan and is investing resources in low-income children and addressing racial disparities in learning. Open your home to foster children or become an ally for refugee families. We can’t do it all, but we must do something.

However, addressing child poverty, hunger, and neglect will require more than direct personal interaction. Charity and volunteerism alone will be inadequate to address the breadth of our challenges. Your voice is also needed to improve government investment in children. Have you ever written an email or called your state or federal representatives and asked them to focus on child needs? Rarely do children get prioritized in our political process. Offer you time, donate, and lend your voice to policy reforms through the Maine Children’s Alliance.

Children deserve a fair start in life, one rich with loving interaction, educational support, skill development, play and exploration. The pandemic will pass, but too many of our children will remain sidelined. Let’s not return to normal but become the American generation that recognized the sacred worth of each child and invested our energies and resources as if we meant it.

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