Opinion

We must improve Maine’s child welfare system

Over the last three decades, I have practiced law in Aroostook County, and for much of that time I have been heavily involved with cases involving abused and neglected children. Sadly, there never seems to be a shortage of these cases.

Across the state, hundreds of children are not able to live with their families because of dangerous or neglectful situations in the home. Worse yet, every year there are children maimed and killed by their caregivers. When this kind of tragedy happens, the policy makers, like me, tend to react with what we hope will “fix” the problem. Usually, these changes are Band-Aids that don’t get at the root of the problem.

Based on a recent audit of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that deals with child and family services, and my experience working day in and day out on these cases, I want to raise awareness about child welfare issues in Maine and offer solutions to improve this system.

From my vantage point, I would offer these prerequisites: There are far too many parents who are unable to protect and care for their children safely, often because of substance abuse problems. The opioid crisis has brought an explosion of drug use in Maine, and many of these homes are totally unfit for children. We also are facing an epidemic of domestic violence, which can seriously harm the development of young children’s minds and bodies.

Some of my colleagues and I are working on legislation right now to address problems of substance abuse and domestic violence. Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Waldo, is working on a bill this session to support services that help sexual and domestic violence survivors. This is one way we can help address part of the multifaceted problems that surround child abuse and neglect.

We know the systems in place are not working as well as they need to, from the first intake of a child welfare case to the time the court declares a long-term care plan for affected children. I know that there are experts in DHHS, the courts and non-profits working hard to protect the safety and well-being to kids in need. But we need to do more. Children’s lives are at stake. Now that we have the data about the problems within the child welfare system from the recent audit of DHHS, we need to bring together a group of experts to put our heads together and find real solutions to make the system more efficient and effective for the sake of those who need our help the most.

Currently in Augusta, I serve as the Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee, which deals with the majority of legislation related to child welfare. I’m happy to tell you that we are learning to deal with this problem in a more comprehensive way. Before the session ends, it is my hope that we will come forward with proposals that will provide the DHHS with more follow-up staff, with more training assets for the workers, and with statutory changes that might lessen the chance of tragedies. Stay tuned, and I will write back.

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