The recent series of child abuse-related deaths in Maine again highlights our failing as a state to protect children from abuse and sometimes death.

This is not new. Every few years there is a particularly horrific case or series of cases in our state and every few years the focus falls on the child welfare system embodied by the Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and every few years some sort of investigation occurs, whether internal or external, that highlights areas in need of improvement.

Yet, serious abuse and deaths continue to occur. Worse, for every death, dozens of other children suffer from serious abuse. These children are rarely ever mentioned.

Over the years, whenever there is a particularly horrific case there has been a knee jerk focus on OCFS. But child safety is not just an OCFS, or even a DHHS problem. It is a Maine problem. It is a problem for each one of us and the solution can only come from an open and frank discussion involving us all.

OCFS has asked Casey Family Programs to come into the state to investigate these recent deaths and has correctly invited the Maine child welfare ombudsman to participate in that review. OCFS has also initiated an internal review of these deaths. Is that enough?

Should not the review process also include the expertise embodied in the Maine Child Death and Serious Injury Review Panel, the Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel, and the Maine Child Welfare Advisory Panel, to name a few?

Other worthwhile participants in such a review could include the Maine Judiciary, the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a diverse representation of professionals and nonprofessionals within the state. Perhaps the governor should convene a statewide public forum to analyze and attempt to improve the child welfare and safety problems too long impacting our children and their families.

During the last public review after the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy, an issue was raised in the Legislature about mandatory reporters not reporting.

But the problem, at least for many professionals, is not a failure to report abuse; it is failure to recognize abuse. Improvements in this area can only come from open and frank discussion among all mandatory reporter agencies and perhaps their licensure boards. Education is desperately needed and a state-run, elective, web-based education program on mandatory reporting is clearly not enough.

But the problem of reporting runs deeper than that. Child abuse rarely occurs in a vacuum. Someone usually has seen or knows something and done nothing. It could be a family member in or outside the home, a neighbor, a teacher, a store clerk, a medical or mental health provider, and so many others.

We are all responsible. When a child dies, we all have failed. Isn’t it time we take a hard look at that failure and engage all of us in doing something about it?

Who is responsible for child safety in Maine? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? We all are.


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