The number of children living in poverty in Maine continues to increase, as does the number who are getting social services such as food stamps.
That trend is unsurprising but it could be leading to more cases of what experts call adverse child experiences, which often lead to problems in adulthood such as crime and drug abuse and could be contributing to a higher number of children in state custody.
A 52-page report released Thursday by the Maine Children’s Alliance highlighted data used to track the well-being of Maine’s children. Most of the revelations were grim.
Nearly one in four Maine children younger than 5 and 19.3 percent of all children younger 18 were living in poverty in 2011, the report says. Both are increases over the previous year.
“We used to be able to say that’s unacceptable to have that many kids in poverty, but the truth is, it’s there and we have been accepting it,” said Ned McCann, director of the Maine Children’s Alliance.
One in four Maine children also had at least two adverse experiences, including parents’ divorce or separation, socioeconomic hardship, domestic violence or drug abuse by a parent, according to the report. The high rate of those experiences has contributed to an increase in the number of children placed in state custody for the first time in 11 years.
Six of every 1,000 children – a total of 1,654 – were in state custody in 2012. That’s the highest number since 2002, when the rate was 9.6 children per 1,000. The rate decreased steadily every year through 2011, when just 4.8 of every 1,000 children were in state custody.
“We’ve seen anecdotes about bath salts and drug problems affecting families, and that might have something to do with it. We’ve yet to see any documentation about it,” McCann said when asked why the numbers are going up.
Claire Berkowitz, director of the data book and research for the alliance, said she has asked but hasn’t received concrete answers from the state Department of Health and Human Services about why the trend shifted.
“There are probably a lot of reasons. Some of it is … the substance abuse issues,” she said.
The Maine Children’s Alliance has produced its annual report, called the Maine Kids Count Data Book, for the last 19 years. It’s part of a national initiative funded by the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Most of the data in the report has been released elsewhere, but the Maine Children’s Alliance said that having it all in one place is a great way for the public and policy makers to spot trends and address some of the state’s problems.
“We know that sound data can be the basis for good public policy, because the results over time show how investments in kids can work for everyone,” Berkowitz said.
Highlights of the 2013 Maine Kids Count Data Book include:
• The number of children receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits decreased from 23,922 (8.7 percent) in 2011 to 15,293 (5.6 percent) in 2012, because of legislation that capped the benefits at 60 months.
• The number of Maine children receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits food stamps, increased from 75,889 (27.6 percent) to 86,908 (31.6 percent) from 2011 to 2012.
• The percentage of children younger than 5 whose parents received Women Infants and Children benefits increased from 44.2 percent to 48.8 percent from 2011 to 2012.
• Only 28 percent of income-eligible Maine children were in the Head Start program in 2012.
• The number of 4-year-olds enrolled in public preschool was 4,769, or 32.8 percent of all 4-year-olds in Maine. That’s up from 2,589 enrolled in 2007-08.
• In the 2011-12 school year, twice as many boys were in special education services (19,764) as girls (9,718). In all, 15.6 percent of students had special needs. Nine percent of students are autistic. That number more than doubled from 2004-5 to 2011-12 (1,018 to 2,646).
• Developmental screenings for children younger than 5 increased from 21.5 percent to 27.3 percent from 2011 to 2012.
McCann said, “We are calling on all of our elected officials to step up to the plate for kids in these times.”
Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Paul Koenig contributed to this report.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344: