More than three years ago, the horrifying deaths of two girls spurred reform in Maine’s child protective system. As the recent deaths of four more children showed with devastating clarity, it has not been enough.

The system is now under review — again — from a number of angles. For everyone involved, there are two questions: How can Maine become a better state for its most vulnerable children, and what can be done — right now — to prevent the next tragedy?

They could not be more urgent.

Underfunded and understaffed, Maine’s child protective system has been overwhelmed by families wrecked by poverty and poor health, with everything made worse by the relentless opioid epidemic and the isolation of the pandemic.

As a result, overburdened child protective workers missed warning signs in the cases of Kendall Chick, 4, and Marissa Kennedy, 10, who were both involved with the state system before they died, within months of each other in 2017 and 2018, as a result of abuse at home.

Dozens of additional workers were hired to lighten the load, but it has not been enough. Reports by the system’s ombudsman found that child protective workers continue to struggle with identifying whether a child is at risk and where they should be living.

Then, in the span of just a few weeks in June, four Maine kids died, none older than 6. In three of those cases, a parent has been charged. In at least one of the cases, the state had been involved with the family at one point.

We don’t know all the details. But the dead children are evidence enough that what Maine is doing is not working. And that’s not all: In 2020, out of 82 closed cases, the ombudsman found fault with the state’s handling of 38 of them.

Clearly, there are kids out there in dire situations that are being overlooked.

That’s not to dismiss the difficulty of this job. The cases are increasingly complex, involving unstable families facing struggles across multiple generations.

The staff, the ombudsman’s report notes, are “remarkably dedicated,” but there are simply not enough of them. The new hires have made a difference, and more are necessary — dozens more, according to the ombudsman, though fewer were approved in the recently passed budget.

The Mills administration also is focusing on prevention, intervening with families early in order to prevent matters from worsening.

In addition, the state has contracted with a national child welfare research organization to find ways to improve child protective services, with recommendations coming in 90 days. That’s on top of at least three other investigations, including one approved last week by the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee.

Other developments will make a difference. The new child tax credit passed as part of the American Rescue Plan Act is expected to lift 10,000 Maine kids out of poverty, at least temporarily, lessening financial stress on families.

All Maine students will now have access to free meals at school, as well, and a child care program established this year will provide relief and support to families with young children.

The uphill battle against addiction also continues, though the historic levels of deaths by overdose shows we are in the middle of that fight, not near the end.

Maine must continue to make investments in these areas, as well as housing and transportation, so that families can find the stability young kids so desperately need.

Ultimately, that’s how you reduce child abuse and neglect — by building strong, caring communities that help make families resilient, and can recognize and act when something’s going wrong.

Of course, the addition of new case workers and the broader investments in families will take a while to make a difference.

In the meantime, the Mills administration must make every effort to find kids in crisis who the system had previously missed. They should be given every resource.

It’s an all-out emergency. The next Marissa Kennedy or Kendall Chick is out there somewhere, right now, wondering if anyone is coming to help.



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