The Mills administration on Tuesday unveiled a strategic plan that officials said will keep children safe by supporting and strengthening families.
The plan includes an initial investment of $1 million in public education and community-based programs that will be included in an upcoming budget update proposal. And it incorporates a range of other initiatives already before the Legislature as part of pending legislation or Gov. Janet Mills’ proposed budget.
The Maine Child Safety and Family Wellbeing Plan released by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in partnership with the Maine Child Welfare Action Network aims to prevent child abuse and neglect by providing economic stability, quality education, health care and other supports to struggling families. It does not contain any timeline or a cost estimate for achieving its goals.
DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew described the state’s first child safety plan as a “bold new framework to guide policy makers and community members in preventing child abuse and neglect by strengthening families and communities.” She said the plan will require constant updating.
“Too often, our department meets families and children only when they are in crisis, long after the moment when needed supports could have or should have been provided,” Lambrew said. “We must work to dedicate resources upstream, back to those moments or the forks in the road that could prevent a tragedy.”
It comes as a bipartisan panel of lawmakers has been investigating the state’s involvement in cases where children have been killed by their parents in recent years and whether more could have been done to prevent those deaths.
The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, which ordered the investigations, has taken the Mills administration to court for access to confidential child protection records. While that case is ongoing, members have received reports from the state’s nonpartisan watchdog agency about the state’s actions in two of four child death cases that occurred two summers ago. It is awaiting reports on the others.
The plan announced Tuesday aligns with calls from Democratic committee members to begin looking at “upstream” investments and supports for families that may be struggling with substance use disorder, mental health or poverty, all of which are underlying factors in many child welfare investigations.
Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, serves on the oversight committee and has proposed removing the Office of Child and Family Services from DHHS, which he says will improve transparency and accountability. He said the administration’s new plan and the initial funding falls far short of what is needed to keep children safe, especially in providing resources to address mental health issues.
“This plan deals with $1 million. Where does $1 million go in today’s society over the whole state of Maine? It’s not much,” Timberlake said. “I’m willing to spend what it takes to solve this problem.”
Lambrew said the plan will evolve over time and additional funding requests would be included in future budgets. She declined to outline any additional initiatives that are expected to be included in the governor’s revised budget.
Developing a child safety and family wellbeing plan was one of several proposals outlined in Mills’ State of the Budget address in February. Mills said the plan would seek to ensure kids have healthy food, safe housing and child care, while also supporting parents with job training and education, and mental health and substance use services.
“If we keep families healthy, then we can keep children safe,” Mills said at the time.
The plan says that the risk of child abuse and neglect increases when families lack things like access to health care, education and economic stability.
“While not the reason for a child protective finding, almost half (47%) of Maine families with child protective findings in calendar year 2021 were single-parent households struggling to meet their basic needs,” the plan states. “In addition to economic stressors, the most prevalent risk factors for families with child maltreatment findings were neglect, drug/alcohol use and domestic violence.”
The plan says that an outside study found that 46% of Maine households with children struggle to meet basic needs for food, housing, transportation, health care or child care; access to child care is limited by staffing shortages; and mental health calls to the state’s 2-1-1 help line increased by 32% from 2019 to 2020, while calls for substance use services increased by 32%. And substance use is a risk factor in more than half of all the child removals in the state.
The plan, which state officials said was informed by community engagement sessions held in March and attended by about 250 people, includes five strategies for achieving the goals, including passage of pending legislation, as well as new and ongoing initiatives from the administration.
Some of the specific bills cited in the plan include: L.D. 1527, sponsored by Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, to allocate $2 million a year to expand the community school program, where services for mental health, substance use, housing and income security benefits can be provided to families; L.D. 1040, sponsored by Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, to continue coverage of gender-affirming care under MaineCare; and L.D. 82, sponsored by Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, to improve access to children’s behavioral health services.
The $1 million in proposed additional spending that Lambrew announced Tuesday includes $700,000 for a public education campaign to educate parents about the resources available and to reduce the stigma around asking for help. The remaining $300,000 will be used to provide technical assistance to community groups to establish programs to help families, she said.
Todd Landry, the director of the Office of Child and Family Services, said the department also is working on ways to improve training for mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect, including teachers, doctors and childcare providers. The goal is to better educate mandated reporters about community programs that can help a struggling family before they have to call the state to initiate a child protective services investigation.
That effort is part of a coordinated effort among all six New England states, which hold meetings about child welfare and protection. “This is an area that we have all agreed to look at together and learn from each other,” Landry said.
Megan Hannan, executive director of the Maine Community Action Partnership, said the initial round of funding will be used to help community organizations establish flexible funds to help families who may be struggling with things such as transportation to appointments or work, and being able to afford food, clothing or heat.
Melissa Hackett, a coordinator with the Maine Child Welfare Action Network, said the education campaign will acknowledge that raising children is a difficult job, and that parents shouldn’t feel ashamed if they’re struggling and need help.
“This plan recognizes that parenting is an important and difficult job and everyone has a role to play in raising the next generation,” Hackett said.
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