AUGUSTA — Fallout from Maine’s substance abuse problems is blamed largely for an uptick in children in Maine’s state-funded foster care program, leading the state to request $4.2 million in emergency funding.

The Department of Health and Human Services says in 2011, it expected 1,400 children in foster care by the end of the 2013 fiscal year, which ends in June.

As of Friday, it said about 1,721 are in state custody and it expects anywhere from 1,800 to 1,900 by the fiscal year’s end, in June. That would stretch the $36.2 million budgeted for foster care and adoption subsidies for the year, said Therese Cahill-Low, director of DHHS’ Office of Child and Family Services.

It’s one of the few spending initiatives the department is pursuing at a bleak financial time — facing a $112 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year, blamed largely on higher-than-expected costs for MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program.

It’s one of the few spending initiatives the department is pursuing at a bleak financial time — facing a $112 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year, blamed largely on higher-than-expected costs for MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program.

Cahill-Low said a confluence of issues — mostly prescription drugs, but also economic hardship and the recent phenomenon of “bath salts,” a synthetic drug Maine outlawed in 2011 known to causes fits and delusions, have caseworkers seeing children living under unprecedented circumstances, mostly with parents below the age of 35, many of them teenagers.

“We’ve seen parents in trees; we’ve seen weapons being displayed when people are on substances more and more than what caseworkers report that they saw in the past,” she said. “The unpredictability of their actions are really huge causes for concern.”

Advocates say substance abuse has long been a major factor in foster care placement, but some are seeing what Cahill-Low describes as the front lines.

“We seem to be seeing an increase in substance abuse and the types of drugs used,” said Bette Hoxie, executive director of Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine in Old Town, a support, advocacy and education group.

Before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday, Robert Blanchard, an associate director at DHHS’ Office of Child and Family Services, called the uptick of children in state care surprising, saying the department started noticing the increase in November 2011 after reducing the number of children in foster cases from a high of about 3,000 around a decade ago.

Large changes came to Maine’s foster care after a watershed moment in 2001, when the system was roundly criticized after the death of 5-year-old Logan Marr, of Chelsea, at the hands of her foster mother, Sally Schofield, who was convicted later of manslaughter for asphyxiating the girl with duct tape. Schofield was a caseworker when she took Marr in, and the state later said the DHHS caseworker assigned to the girl didn’t oversee her adequately and had a friendly relationship with Schofield.

Cahill-Low said in the 1990s and early 2000s, states would often take children from families that perhaps could have remained.

Between January 2001 and January 2011, the number of children in care dropped from 2,956 to 1,461, MaineToday Media has reported. Cahill-Low attributed that to more contact and outreach with families, saying it’s now in touch with 5,000, despite the lower number of children in care.

Between 2006 and 2010, the share of children in state custody placed with family members, kinship care, jumped from less than 18 percent to nearly 39 percent of all state placements, according to a 2011 news release from the Maine Children’s Alliance. Children in state-overseen kinship care are reflected in the state’s overall numbers of children in care.

Experts say kinship care is a cheaper, more permanent and nurturing environment for children. The news release said that move toward increased kinship care led to an 86 percent savings in state residential costs for children over that four-year period.

Dean Crocker, the state’s child welfare ombudsman, said DHHS isn’t going back in a wrong direction, but economic factors are working to put more children into the state’s foster system. Data seem to bear his reasoning out: DHHS data show nearly 42 percent of children in foster care, or 721 children, are age 5 or under. With that, roughly 1 in 5 Maine children under age 5 was living in poverty in 2011, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit children’s advocacy group.

“When you put that together with the substance-abuse epidemic, I don’t think you have to look much farther into it,” Crocker said.

But substance abuse among parents has long been a factor in foster care, said Paul Maheux, clinical supervisor for treatment foster care at SMART Child and Family Services in Windham.

“We haven’t seen a spike, but it’s absolutely still a problem in most foster care cases,” he said.

Andi Chasse, of Lyman, has been a foster parent for 29 years. In that time, she said, she’s taken in too many children to count and adopted eight of them, each after they turned 18.

“In my experience, substance abuse or alcoholism was involved in 99 percent of all cases,” she said.

Crocker and Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, the House chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said ever-tightening budgets on the state level and cuts to child care programs such as Head Start may be part of the foster care problem. Cahill-Low said many problems were evident before cuts took place.

To Farnsworth, the state may need this extra money for foster care because of cuts in other places.

“It’s like a balloon. You can squeeze it, but the air doesn’t go anywhere; it just goes out to the sides and eventually pops,” he said. “The need isn’t going to go away. It’s just going to find another place to pop up.”

Both Farnsworth and Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, who’s also on the committee, said the Legislature is obligated to support the proposed increase in funding.

“What are we going to do?” Farnsworth asked. “Put the kids on the street?”

“If it costs us, it costs us. We’re prepared to pay,” Malaby said. “This is the right thing to do. This is our youth.”

Portland Press Herald staff writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report.

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632
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