The recently reported deaths of four Maine children in the past month send an alarm signal to those concerned with the safety of our children and call for an intensive review, both within state government and in communities across our state, of how these tragic deaths could have been prevented. We should also take this moment to assess how we can prevent the breakdown of healthy family functioning, so fewer children experience the trauma of abuse or neglect.

We welcome the Department of Health and Human Services’ decision to call on a national consultant, Casey Family Programs, to assist the state in determining to what extent Child Protective Services were already aware and involved with these families, and if they were not already, in determining why these families were not on the radar of Child Protective Services. The first question that must be answered is: How did the child welfare system fail to protect these children? A second and equally important question: How do we prevent these tragedies and ensure children are safe?

The good news is that we know how to prevent child maltreatment. Child neglect, which represents the majority of child welfare cases, can be addressed effectively through providing supportive services addressing issues related to poverty and mental and behavioral health needs, and providing basic parenting education, resources and coaching. Through these services we could eliminate the need for formal child welfare involvement for many Maine families. That would relieve the current strain on Child Protective Services, allowing their resources to be better targeted to the families in need of more intensive interventions.

The state must prioritize primary prevention and early intervention services to stabilize and strengthen families who are struggling, and before they are in crisis. Much of this work should be community-based. The stigma associated with formal child welfare involvement too often prevents families from seeking help when they are in crisis. Community-based facilities like family resource centers can function as welcoming spaces for families to access resources for critical needs like child care, housing, substance use and behavioral health services. They can also provide parent education and support groups, so they can learn and connect with other families. Home visiting, a proven approach to helping families with parenting, is another less stigmatizing support, yet falls far short of being universally available or utilized in the state. These services should be expanded and made available to provide support to many more families.

With significant federal dollars coming into the state and to counties and municipalities through the American Rescue Plan, a key consideration should be how to increase supports for families across our state who are struggling. The pandemic has exacerbated stressors in families that often contribute to the breakdown of healthy family functioning. Without a helping hand or connection to supportive services, families can become overwhelmed with stress, which increases the likelihood of maltreatment. With the resources and the will, we can respond now, to promote family well-being and ensure child safety.

While effective prevention services are often community-based, the state has a role to play in articulating the vision and coordinating providers. A statewide child and family well-being framework would provide the structure needed to implement and maintain effective supportive systems and services across the state. Without such leadership and coordination, we will continue to fall short in our efforts to reach families, address their needs, and prevent child maltreatment.

Any child death is one too many. A serious inquiry and response by the agencies charged with child protection is in order. It is equally important in this moment to recognize the needs of struggling families and to consider the roles of communities and government to respond. Maine can create a system of supports to help families early on, giving parents resources they need to be successful, preventing child maltreatment, and ensuring more children can stay safely with their families.

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