The headline on a recent Press Herald story says “Another child welfare crisis has gripped Maine. Is this a problem that can be solved?”

The answer depends on the definition of “solved.” If solved means that no child will ever die of abuse, then the answer is no. If solved means that no child previously “known-to-the system” will ever be fatally abused, the answer is still no – just as the police can’t stop every murder and the fire department can’t prevent every fire.

But if the definition of solved is: Maine creates a system that makes it less likely children will be killed, or harmed in any other way, a system that serves as a model for the nation, then the answer is yes. We know this because, not that long ago, Maine had such a system.

It was 2011 when the Press Herald reported: “Observers say Maine’s child welfare system is now a national model … Tracy Feild, of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said … “Maine was not on the map as being a leader in the past … Now they’re viewed as having really good outcomes.”

The Casey Foundation was not alone in that assessment. In 2009, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government named Maine’s child welfare reform a finalist for its Innovations in American Government award.

What went right then, and why is it going wrong now? The answers are rooted in how Maine has responded to child welfare tragedies.

In 2001, after Logan Marr was killed by her foster mother (who also was a child welfare caseworker) Maine ultimately learned the right lessons. When John Baldacci became governor two years after Logan’s death, he brought in visionary leaders who understood that you can’t fix these problems just by going on caseworker hiring binges or toughening licensing standards.

Baldacci’s leadership team understood that the heart of the problem was that Maine was taking away far too many children needlessly – often, as with Logan Marr, when family poverty was confused with neglect. Baldacci’s leadership team bolstered help for impoverished families, dramatically reduced the use of the worst form of care, group homes and institutions, and, when foster care truly was necessary, dramatically increased placements with relatives instead of strangers. Multiple studies have found such placements are better for children’s well-being, more stable, and, most important, safer than what should properly be called stranger care.

But then came Paul LePage. Maine’s answer to Donald Trump had the same approach to families in Maine as Trump had to families at the Mexican border. His steep cuts in social services, including programs targeted toward families at risk of abuse, combined with demagogic rhetoric scapegoating efforts to keep families together, sent caseloads soaring again.  Even as the number of vulnerable families increased, workers had less time to find them.

That made tragedies such as the deaths of Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick more likely. But after these deaths, LePage doubled-down on failure, once again scapegoating efforts to keep families together. Once again, caseworkers rushed to tear apart more families.

The recent Press Herald story claimed that “The dramatic rise in the number of children in state custody suggests the state is doing better in removing children from unsafe homes …” On the contrary, it suggests foster-care panic, a sharp, sudden surge in needless removals of children, further overloading workers and making more likely tragedies such as the death of Maddox Williams.

You can’t fix this by turning child welfare into its own agency; that’s just rearranging the deck chairs. You can’t fix it just by hiring more caseworkers. All the new workers wind up chasing all the new cases caused by the foster-care panic and all you get is the same lousy system, only bigger. And you can’t fix it by further traumatizing families already under surveillance by family policing agencies by ratcheting up that surveillance.

You can only make children safer with a laser focus on ending the confusion of poverty with neglect, stopping the latest wave of needless family destruction, and giving workers the time to find the very few children in real danger before it’s too late. In other words, Maine needs to learn the lessons of Logan Marr – again.


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