There’s a cruel irony in Maine’s new strategy to protect children from abuse and neglect: The state wants to remove more children from their families and put them in foster care, but fewer people are signing up to be foster parents.

Those who do report that it’s a thankless, overwhelming job. They do not receive enough support from the state or the resources to meet the needs of very troubled children.

The decline coincides with an increase in demand for placements that predates the latest policy shift. It is attributed in part to the opioid crisis, which is turning suitable homes into dangerous places for children.

As bad as it is, the foster care crisis may be a warning sign of a much bigger problem — one that affects many more children than the over 1,800 in state custody. Poverty, including uncertainty about food, housing and health care, is stressing out parents in ways that can have a lifelong impact on their children. The same forces that are causing foster parents to opt out also are making it harder to meet their responsibilities to their children. The foster crisis is a family crisis.

In a Maine Sunday Telegram story (Sept. 2), Leah Bruns of South Portland summed up the problem well. She said that she has been a foster parent for years and has adopted two children from foster care. She has long advocated for more resources, not just for foster parents but for families in crisis as well.

“As long as I’ve been involved in the system, it’s been changing,” she said. “It seems that there has been less and less funding for foster parents and less and less staff available to help. The burden is always on caseworkers to make the impossible happen.”

Waiting for the impossible is not a strategy. Boosting the ranks of caseworkers, as the Legislature recently approved, is a step in the right direction, but only a small one.

At its root, this is a family crisis, not a foster family crisis. A lack of affordable housing, stagnant wages and expensive health coverage do not make people stronger or motivate them to succeed. Families are the building blocks of society, and at times they need help to maintain a stable environment for both parents and children to survive.

Well-resourced foster care is absolutely necessary, but it will rarely be better than not needing to remove a child from her parents in the first place. Declaring war on family reunification rings hollow when there aren’t enough families out there willing to take in foster children under these circumstances.

In just two months, Maine will chose a new governor, who will have a chance to take a new approach to this crisis. Over the next eight weeks, we will be paying special attention to what the contenders for this office have to say.

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