The COVID-19 pandemic has led to another public health crisis in Maine: an unprecedented number of child deaths. While many are focused on improvements to the state child welfare agency, this is only part of the picture we need to consider. Maine’s child protective services are receiving high levels of maltreatment reports, yet most of these children are experiencing neglect, not physical abuse. With supportive services to address challenges families are facing, we can prevent child abuse and neglect, and our overreliance on intervention by child protective services after maltreatment has already occurred.

Many families in communities across our state are overburdened with stressors like unmet mental health needs, substance use disorders and economic insecurity. These families need reliable access to supportive services to provide safety at home, and to get the help they need to reunify when children have been at risk in the home. The ongoing pandemic has added significant additional weight to those stressors already challenging families in staying safely together.

In Maine, over three-quarters of the cases of substantiated child maltreatment in 2020 were because of neglect or emotional abuse, often related to parental mental health and substance use disorders. And the state’s highest rates of maltreatment in 2020 were in rural counties with less access to supportive and treatment services, including capacity for medically assisted treatment for opioid use disorders and recovery community centers. Roughly 9,000 children are being raised by kin with no parent present, and an estimated 5,224 grandparents are responsible for raising their grandchildren.

Working with families, we have seen firsthand the lack of resources available to support them. Without those resources, conditions in families can deteriorate, resulting in safety concerns. Children exposed to neglect are often removed and placed in foster families with little understanding of how to support the child’s specific needs. Resource families (foster parents, foster-to-adopt families and kinship caregivers) are left with minimal support, and lengthy waits for evaluations before services are available to support the child. After evaluation, it can still take months for an appointment with a provider. Similarly, we lack adequate resources for parents working to reunify, including access to mental health or substance use disorder treatment. The courts are often overburdened, with case reviews pushed out weeks and months.

All the while, children are separated from their families and schools and are living with an uncertain future. Families are disrupted and parents are frustrated navigating a system not capable of meeting them where they are, with the resources they need, to provide a safe and stable home for their children.

In our time working with families, we have met caseworkers, medical providers, lawyers and community members working hard to improve outcomes for children and families. The commitment to their well-being is there, but the resources often are not. For too many families, involvement with the child welfare system is also generational. This speaks to a fundamental deficiency in the system, in failing to provide adequate and ongoing support to break cycles of generational family trauma. This trauma can have long-term implications for youth mental health, connection to education and, later, costly systems involvement.

Maine has an opportunity right now to strengthen families and prevent child abuse and neglect by investing in a robust, coordinated supportive service system. This must include addressing barriers to mental health and substance use disorder treatment, and sufficient resources for kinship, resource and families involved with child protective services. By working together and ensuring supports are available and accessible to families and children when they are needed, we can stabilize families and reduce the number of children who experience maltreatment and separation from their families and communities. Our state has the resources right now to make this investment in our children, youth and families. We have an opportunity and an obligation to commit the resources necessary to ensure parents are supported and children can grow up in safe and nurturing environments.

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