Despite a heated and divisive session, when Maine’s 131st Legislature wrapped up business in July, we saw remarkable achievements on behalf of very young children. After a brief summer respite, it is helpful to examine accomplishments, what is left to do and who was left behind. While very young children are now on the path to success, older children involved with juvenile justice services are not so well positioned.

The Mills administration’s priorities for early childhood intervention reflect significant advancements in the science of child development. Bad things happen to children. Since the groundbreaking 1998 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Kaiser study on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), we know there are long-term, detrimental effects of ACEs on children: poor school performance, employment instability, depression, obesity, heart disease and, yes, criminal justice involvement.

Two accomplishments this past legislative session demonstrated commitment to early intervention and ACE prevention: paid family medical leave and access to child care. Maine families can now count on paid family medical leave for 12 weeks and $30 million invested in child care. The legislation was grounded in empirical evidence confirming positive outcomes with those resources, outcomes Maine children will now experience. But early intervention is just that. The target population is age 0-5 or, at most, 8. Similar commitment for older children lags.

If those two accomplishments signal successful intervention for very young children, two stalled efforts stand out as missed opportunities for others. They include shifting funds from the largely empty state children’s prison to community-based services and moving juvenile justice out of the Department of Corrections.

Maine is not alone in forsaking science when it comes to juvenile justice, even while embracing it in early childhood policy. It may not be surprising that incarcerating adolescents degrades their health and predicts significant physical and mental health problems into adulthood. Those costs may be weighed against a presumed benefit of public safety. The startling fact, however, is research demonstrates that not just incarceration but also even probation undermines rather than contribute to public safety. The most reliable predictor of children committing delinquent acts is involvement in juvenile justice. The only thing worse is involvement in juvenile justice through a state department without a primary focus on children and child development.

Nationwide, fewer children are involved in juvenile justice today. Those remaining have the greatest health and education needs. Yet rather than health and development experts, they are under the care and supervision of corrections experts. Investments in DOC training and efforts to provide appropriate treatment overtaxes the DOC system. It is also redundant to existing services for all other children provided by the Department of Health and Human Services. Such a misplacement sends the message some children are different from all others when it comes to accessing specialized care to get back on track. This system “othering” conflicts with the science on childhood resilience. Despite ACEs, children survive, thrive and achieve social responsibility when they feel valued, treated justly and have a sense of belonging in communities. Maine can do better for all children. Consider New Hampshire as a model.

First, all children’s services except education are in one New Hampshire agency where prevention and care can be a continuum. They also established an independent child advocate as an ombudsman and voice for all children. That voice for children was part of a leadership team guiding a transformation of juvenile justice services informed by science and input from children’s experiences. Now, when New Hampshire children encounter law enforcement, they can undergo a strengths-based needs assessment before delinquency charges are filed. The idea is to mitigate underlying needs that cause delinquency to avoid negative effects of system involvement and recidivism. Interventions may range from intensive in-home therapeutic supports to tutors or even employment. Early outcomes data demonstrate a majority of children successfully diverting from the system. Maine could learn from New Hampshire’s encouraging experience and put all our children on a path to success.

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