The stressors brought on by the pandemic have exacerbated challenges many Maine families were already facing in providing safety for their children. From June to August 2021, four Maine children died in cases where parents were charged with abuse or neglect. Reports of child maltreatment are persistently high, and as of November, 2,282 children were in state custody. These children have experienced the trauma of abuse or neglect and separation from family, and they lack the safety and stability of a permanent home and family.

Many families struggle at times to care for and nurture their children, and can benefit from assistance provided in their communities. Many do not have the privilege of a broader support network of friends and family to lean on in difficult times. As the pandemic has doubled down on stressors in families, concrete and economic supports and supportive services have become even more critical to helping families stay safely together.

Recent reform efforts have focused on improving child protective services. This is essential to ensuring families experiencing the greatest challenges get the help they need. However, focusing solely on the child protective system will not reduce the number of families coming to its attention. While abuse represents a serious risk for children, most reports of maltreatment are neglect, exacerbated by factors like unmet mental health needs, substance use disorder and deep poverty. Robust public health strategies and investments to stabilize families and decrease the need for intensive intervention are essential to reduce maltreatment, support families and decrease the need for child protective services.

We have the opportunity now to make these changes. The Maine Child Welfare Action Network, committed to improving the lives of children and families in Maine, recommends the following actions to strengthen families, keep children safe and reduce the strain on the state’s child protective system:

• Prioritize prevention: There is currently no coordinated system for preventing child maltreatment in Maine. Responsibilities for planning and prevention activities are spread across several state and community entities. The state should assume authority and responsibility for leading the development, implementation and oversight of a comprehensive statewide prevention plan.

• Improve cross-system collaboration: Research indicates that prevention efforts are more likely to decrease the incidence of child abuse and neglect when they are part of a coordinated, systemic approach. Recent reviews have identified the need for Maine’s child welfare agency to improve collaboration with community providers and other state agencies serving the same families.

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The state and philanthropy should work together to invest in the infrastructure for cross-system collaboration between public systems and community service providers.

• Build state agency capacity: The Office of Child and Family Services administers multiple functions and services within state government. Additional focus is needed to develop, implement and oversee child welfare reform efforts. The Legislature and state should work together to build child welfare leadership, caseworker capacity and strengthen child welfare practice.

• Invest in supportive services: Community leaders, philanthropy and the state should work together to invest in community-based supports for families, including mental health and substance use disorder treatment, access to affordable housing and job training.

• Ensure effective oversight: The Legislature and the Child Welfare Ombudsman’s office should provide ongoing oversight of child welfare system improvement recommendations, plans and implementation.

Many families in Maine experience challenges to providing safe, nurturing homes for their children. In response to recent child deaths, high levels of reports of abuse and neglect and the stressors added by the pandemic, Maine has an obligation and opportunity to respond. We can and must act to build an effective child well-being and family strengthening system with a dual focus on supporting families to prevent maltreatment and effective child protective response when families are in crisis. We all have a role to play in developing a child welfare system that better supports the needs of Maine families; it is up to all of us to work together now to make it happen.


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