Child murders in Maine follow years of investment in public child welfare system

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The murders of three young children in Maine since early last month, allegedly by parents, follow years in which the state has devoted more resources to its child welfare system and has seen this system in the field and reviewed more reports of suspected child abuse.

State lawmakers have three times approved funding to hire more social workers, supervisors and social workers since the murders of Kendall Chick, 4, and Marissa Kennedy, 10, over three years. system. They have approved measures to strengthen their compensation and turnover tends to decrease.

Yet the state in 2019 reported that the number of substantiated child abuse victims reached their highest level in years, and the rate of child abuse victims in Maine was more than double the national rate. , according to Maine Children’s annual KIDS COUNT report. Alliance.

The murder of three children in less than a month is unprecedented in Maine, a former state social services commissioner said last month. Last month, the state also saw a young child in Temple die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and last week an 11-month-old nearly died of a drug overdose.

Improving child safety involves prevention strategies that don’t even directly involve the child protection system, child protection experts have said.

More reports and surveys

Between January 2019 and February 2020, the Department of Health and Social Services added 130 additional employees to its Office of Child and Family Services, strengthening the ranks of social workers and child protection supervisors. ‘childhood.

At the same time, the office was reporting more suspected cases of child abuse and neglect, which is common in the wake of high-profile tragedies such as the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy raising public awareness of child abuse. children.

The state recorded nearly 27,000 reports of suspected child abuse and neglect in 2019, up from around 25,000 in 2018 and less than 20,000 in 2017, according to the latest annual report from child protection services. .

Federal data shows Maine topped the rest of the country in 2019 in the rate of children whose families were the subject of child protection surveys. That year, 65.5 out of 1,000 children in Maine were surveyed, compared to 47.2 out of 1,000 children nationally.

The increase in the number of investigations was “likely due to increased awareness of child protection work and the importance of reporting suspicions of abuse and / or neglect resulting from the two high-profile child deaths. 2017 and early 2018, “said Jackie Farwell, a spokesperson for DHHS.

Additionally, an increase in 2018 stems from a directive from the administration of former Governor Paul LePage following the murder of Marissa Kennedy to examine numerous cases the state referred to contractors because they had been found to be low risk, Farwell said. It was later revealed in court that the state referred Marissa Kennedy’s family to one of these contractors.

“Even when not withdrawn, the idea of ​​visitors coming from DHHS is traumatic for children,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

Mark Moran, a former child protection service worker in Bangor, said a growing number of child abuse investigations do not necessarily equate to increased child safety.

Further, he said, “I am not sure that the underlying problems and deficiencies in the State Child Welfare are going to be addressed by an increase in the number of staff.

Prevention

Research on preventing child abuse has shown that the most effective strategies do not directly involve child protection interventions. They involve providing economic support to improve family stability and parent education efforts such as home visits to new parents from nurses and social workers, according to a U.S. CDC compilation of strategies. prevention of child abuse.

Economic support strategies, such as the earned income tax credit for low-income families, “have reached the top” in research on alleviating child abuse and neglect, said Dr. Bart Klika, Research Director at Prevent Child Abuse America.

Specifically, he said, a refundable version of the earned income tax credit – which pays money to qualifying families even though they don’t owe taxes – has been associated with “significant reductions. abusive head trauma ”.

“We have also found that for every dollar of increase in the minimum wage, there are significant reductions in child neglect,” he said.

Child poverty is often mistaken for neglect, Wexler said, and even incremental increases in income can be effective in solving the problem. “It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it can be fixed with money,” he said. “What we really need are concrete things like rent subsidies and cash assistance.

While Maine has invested more resources in child protection services, two programs aimed at preventing abuse and neglect ended last year, with DHHS citing their high costs and limited scope and effectiveness.

The Parents as Partners program, through which parents who have gone through the child welfare system to act as peer counselors for parents currently involved in the system, ceased to operate on Wednesday, according to Louise Marsden, vice-president. President of Child and Family Services at The Opportunity. Alliance in South Portland, which held the state contract to run this program.

DHHS ended funding for the program in June 2020 and then conducted an assessment to decide whether or not to continue with the program, Marsden said. This evaluation, completed in April, found some benefits, but also a high cost and little difference in outcomes between participating families and others.

Also in June 2020, DHHS stopped funding another program called Community Partnerships for Child Protection, an initiative that has worked in some areas of the state with high rates of child abuse and neglect reports.

The program oversaw Parents as Partners in these neighborhoods, community councils as well as neighborhood centers where residents could seek economic and social support for themselves and their neighborhoods.

The DHHS said in its assessment that it could not say whether the program itself was making a difference in the safety of children.

DHHS is currently focusing much of its prevention efforts on implementing the Family First Prevention Services Act, Farwell said. This law, signed by former President Donald Trump in 2018, revises federal funding for child protection by allowing states to devote it to prevention strategies. However, it limits state spending to programs deemed to be evidence-based, which means research has proven to be effective.

This evidence-based approach can be a challenge because such programs often require people with specialized training to run them, their reach can be limited and the programs can be expensive, said Shawn Yardley, CEO of the organization. Lewiston Social Services, Community Concepts and a former Child Protection Supervisor.

“It can be effective with a smaller group,” he said, “but it leaves other people on waiting lists or not being served. [about] prevention, we need to have a more universal approach.

Some long-standing prevention approaches the state has put in place include abuse and neglect prevention councils that operate in all 16 counties. These councils oversee parent education programs in their areas and the training of commissioned reporters – those who are required to report suspected child abuse and neglect as part of their professional duties.

However, the boards are not “really solidly funded,” Yardley said. These boards currently receive about $ 1.8 million from the state each year, a level that has not changed since 2018, according to state contracts.

Prevention tips have been proven to “move the needle for families” when it comes to alleviating abuse and neglect, said Heidi Aakjer, deputy director and prevention coordinator at the Maine Children’s Trust, the statewide nonprofit organization that oversees prevention boards for the state. The trust tracks their effectiveness through surveys of custodians who have completed their training and other programs.

According to Aakjer, 75 percent of respondents reported an increase in family strength after taking prevention counseling training. The counseling focuses on “protective factors” that help new parents develop skills to manage stress, recognize normal child development behaviors, and develop external support systems.

In partnership with Prevention Boards, the Maine Children’s Trust recently launched the Front Porch Project, training courses designed to help community members recognize signs of abuse and neglect and intervene when they appear. The project is funded by private donations made to the Maine Children’s Trust after the death of Marissa Kennedy.

The Maine Children’s Trust also oversees the state’s Maine Families home visiting program, which sends skilled workers to new parents ‘homes to provide education, address parents’ concerns about their baby’s development and behavior, and refer families to other services if they need them. The state is seeking to expand this program, which served approximately 2,000 children in 2019, under the Family First Prevention Services Act.

Moran pointed out that the Maine Public Health Nursing Program was another successful prevention program. He sends public health nurses home to educate and support new parents and those with children with complex medical needs, including babies affected by drugs.

This program was largely decimated under the administration of LePage, which left vacancies unfilled and resisted complying with a law requiring it to hire nurses, and the program still falls short of its standards. staffing.

“This is the biggest prevention program I know of,” Moran said. “If there is a red flag, these nurses would be in a good position to see and identify them before there is a bigger problem. ”


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