Toward the end of August, I (Mary Callahan) had an hours-long socially-distanced visit with one of my former foster children.

It was a pleasure, but I cried on the way home. He had such a terrible time in the system, bouncing from foster home to group home to psych unit. Later, like so many other former foster youth, he spent time in prison. He finally found his way back to his birth family.

Logan Marr Courtesy photo

He can’t get over the fact that it never had to happen. His father wasn’t even involved in the incident that led to him being removed from his mother.  They were divorced. Dad moved heaven and earth to get custody, but it wasn’t enough. “I keep thinking about the life I could have had” he said. I noticed his hands were trembling. He was a victim of  Maine’s child welfare system starting in the 1990s, when the state rushed to tear apart families.

It took an even worse tragedy, the death of Logan Marr, killed by her foster mother, Sally Schofield, to shock the state into curbing the misuse and overuse of foster care. But now, Maine has retreated from reform, bringing down tragedy upon children in ways old and new. Once again, Maine has embraced a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, tearing apart families at an even higher rate than it did before Logan Marr was killed.

In 2000, Maine took 1,052 children from their parents. The next year, Schofield, herself a former child welfare caseworker, killed Logan. She was released after serving 14 years for manslaughter.

As was made tragically clear by the PBS documentary “The Taking of Logan Marr,” Logan had something in common with my former foster child: There was no need for her to be placed with strangers. Logan was not taken from a mother who beat or tortured her. Logan taken for the same reason many children are taken: Her family’s poverty was confused with “neglect.” That helps explain why multiple studies find that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

Though Maine caseworkers almost always mean well, the emotional trauma inflicted on these children is no different from that suffered by the children torn from their families at the Mexican border. That trauma occurs even when the foster home is a good one. But while, of course, most foster parents are nothing like Schofield, study after study has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.

The record of group homes and institutions is even worse. And all the time wasted on false allegations, trivial cases and poverty cases makes it less likely that workers will find children in real danger.

So Maine reversed course. While John Baldacci was governor, Maine cut the number of children taken away each year by an average of 20 percent.  When children still had to be taken, Maine placed more in the best form of substitute care – kinship foster care with relatives – and fewer in the worst, institutions. They did it all with no compromise of child safety. So it’s no wonder that by 2009, Maine’s child welfare reform was a finalist for Harvard’s Innovations in American Government awards.

Paul LePage’s ugly rhetoric about child welfare was enough to reverse some of the progress, but it was his exploitation of the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy that crushed the reform effort and started a foster-care panic, a sharp, sudden increase in removal of children from their homes. But the failure is bipartisan; Gov. Janet Mills has done nothing to restore Maine’s safe, successful reforms.

In the first two years after the panic, the number of children torn from their homes each year in Maine skyrocketed 50 percent.  The 1,246 children removed in 2019 was a 20-year high.  Maine now takes away children at a rate 35 percent above the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.

And now there’s a new danger. All those additional removals mean more caseworkers inspecting homes from top to bottom, strip-searching children, walking out with those children, placing them in cars that have transported many others, and depositing them with strangers.  This time the foster-care panic also increases the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to children, families and caseworkers themselves.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Maine fixed its child welfare system once, with enough courage Maine can fix it again.

But the state must act quickly.  Because now Sally Schofield is free, but more and more innocent children are trapped in foster care.

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