The death of 5-year-old Logan Marr at the hands of her foster mother in 2001 focused the entire state on Maine’s child protective system.

The attention, however, inevitably faded as state government moved on to the next crisis, and the one after that — until the deaths of two young girls within months of each other last year once again brought calls for reform.

It’s a cycle that has repeated itself over and over through the years with each high-profile tragedy. The cycle keeps real, lasting reform from taking hold, and it ignores the peril of kids whose names never make the news. Now is the time to finally end it.

Gov. Janet Mills is taking aggressive steps to fix the broken system. Following on reforms made at the end of the LePage administration, Mills is adding caseworkers, increasing pay, instituting a new record-keeping system, and intensifying training — all proper moves to alleviate pressure on a system that was overburdening caseworkers.

It was revealed last week that the case of 4-year-old Kendall Chick was closed 10 months before she died from long-term abuse by her caretaker; the caretaker’s house was visited just twice. The first step for the state is to make sure that other cases are not being treated similarly, and every indication is that the Mills administration is working in the right direction.

But if history is any indication, it will take something more.

The reports that followed the deaths of Chick and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy — who was also involved with state child protective services — concluded that the child welfare system was struggling to adequately monitor children as the number of cases increased.

Lagging social services and the opioid epidemic had made things worse, but the system was already vulnerable — underfunded, and dealing with complex problems with no easy answers, and with little room for error.

As reported by the Portland Press Herald, since 2007, 18 Maine children have been killed in homes where child welfare officials knew there was abuse or neglect. Another 34 deaths that were accidental or of natural causes occurred in homes where abuse or neglect was substantiated.

Not all of those deaths were preventable. But it’s clear that the two young girls, Chick and Kennedy, were not the first to die after presenting warning signs that should have been noticed.

Those tragic oversights took place across multiple administrations, and several Legislatures and health and human services commissioners. Some paid more attention than others to child welfare, and the intensity of the problems ebbed and flowed in reaction to other factors.

But as child welfare advocates will tell you, the system’s shortcomings have stayed largely consistent — it’s just that the wider world doesn’t notice until there is a tragedy that captures its imagination.

So the question is, how does Maine fix the system once and for all, not only to prevent deaths as much as possible but to identify and help any child suffering from abuse and neglect?

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, wants to create a commission to study the child welfare system, set timelines for reform, and oversee the implementation. It could give multiple legislative committees, and other stakeholders, a mechanism for keeping track of the system’s status; without such a mechanism, it’s just too easy for that work to get lost among all the other issues legislators must handle. His bill has been held over to the next session.

Policymakers should also include in the discussion the wider issues that contribute to abuse and neglect — substance abuse, mental illness, housing and hunger.

It should have never taken the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy to reveal the tragic shortcomings in Maine’s child welfare system — the signs were there all along.

Now, we are all forced to confront them, and we shouldn’t let this opportunity pass. The deaths of the two young girls should not be in vain.

 

 


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