Finding hope for Washington County’s lost children

The Baker family of Machiasport, Nicole (left), Gabriel (center) and Nathaniel, (right) play ball outside their rented trailer on Friday. The Baker family is together today due to policy changes at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Baker family of Machiasport, Nicole (left), Gabriel (center) and Nathaniel, (right) play ball outside their rented trailer on Friday. The Baker family is together today due to policy changes at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Posted April 22, 2011, at 9:54 p.m.
Gabriel Baker (left), plays with his mother Nicole as his father prepares lunch at the familys trailer in Machiasport on Friday. The Baker family is together today due to policy changes at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Gabriel Baker (left), plays with his mother Nicole as his father prepares lunch at the familys trailer in Machiasport on Friday. The Baker family is together today due to policy changes at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Gabriel Baker is a red-headed, 3-year-old bucket of giggles. His energy seems limitless. He is playing with the cat, he is climbing on the couch, drawing on paper, “driving” one of his beloved train sets, showing off a craft project from Sunday school — all in the blink of an eye.

He’s a normal little boy in a normal living room in a normal home.

But if the state had not made major changes in rules governing when and why children should be removed from their homes, this family portrait would have looked quite different.

“Ten years ago, I have no doubt the state would have petitioned to have Gabriel removed to foster care,” Ellen Farnsworth of Maine Families, which provides services, assessments and referrals to parents, said on a recent visit to the Baker home.

When Gabriel was still an infant, his father, Nathaniel Baker, now 30, was falsely accused by an anonymous tipster of selling marijuana from the family home. That accusation was never proved and he since has been completely exonerated by police and state officials.

But the lie triggered a series of events that included an exhaustive investigation by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the loss of his job, a separation from his wife and child, a bout with alcohol and eventually the family’s homelessness.

In the past, any one of those triggers may have lost Baker and his wife, Nicole, 29, their only child. But because of a decade-long sea change in Maine’s DHHS system, the Bakers were provided with rescue, respite, advice, strategies and goal-setting — tools provided by Farnsworth that have enabled the family to remain intact and thrive.

A statewide change

It was 10 years ago that 4-year-old Logan Marr was bound to a high chair in the basement of her DHHS caseworker’s home with 40 feet of duct tape. The child suffocated and died, and that horrific event triggered a complete overhaul in Maine’s foster care and child removal system.

“Maine was pushed into a corner and we had to change the way we were serving our children,” Dean Crocker of the Maine Children’s Alliance said. The entire culture of caring for Maine’s children changed. “It is very hard for state bureaucrats to say, ‘Ooops. I’m sorry. I made a mistake,’ but that is exactly what happened,” he said.

Maine officials zeroed in on the embarrassing fact that the state had one of the highest proportions of children in the country in foster care.  The combination of grass-roots demands for change from below and new leadership at the top led to a significant reduction in the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year.

First, Crocker said, DHHS changed its policy that help wouldn’t be provided to families unless there was a positive finding of abuse, changing DHHS from a reactive to a proactive agency.

Second, DHHS recognized that the system had been vastly overbuilt on out-of-home placement options. Crocker said that seven years ago, 75 percent of DHHS funding went toward these placements.

Since these changes were installed, the proportion of children placed with relatives has soared while the proportion in the least effective forms of care — group homes and institutions — plummeted.

“Instead of creating a population of children that were ending up in our jails, our institutions and on our streets, we began to see very, very positive results,” Crocker said. “The children that were allowed to stay with family were staying in school, tending to graduate, had less involvement with law enforcement, and were growing into pretty functional adults.”

It was a complete culture shift, Dr. James Beougher, director of DHHS’ Office of Child and Family Services, said. A decade ago, Maine ranked 47th in the nation in terms of children who were returned to their homes in the first year of state custody. Today Maine is seventh.

The policy became reunification and family stability. Today, 40 percent of children taken from homes by DHHS spend at least their first night away from home with a family member such as an aunt, uncle or grandmother.

According to DHHS statistics, in 2008 there were 13.1 substantiated cases of child abuse-neglect per 1,000 children. That rose to 13.4 per 1,000 in 2009, even though the number of children in state custody has continued to decrease since 2006. The numbers of children in state custody by year are: 2006 = 2,363; 2007 = 2,211; 2008 = 2,099; 2009 = 1,847; 2010 = 1,732.

In 2008, Washington County had the highest rate of all Maine counties of children in state and protective custody. Officials placed blame on a poor, rural, isolated county that is riddled with drug and alcohol abuse. Faced with these problems, many parents felt helpless and inadequate. Cars break, jobs are lost, emergencies happen and, in the blink of an eye, families fall apart.

“It is not a single step dance of reasons or causes,” Dr. Marjorie Withers of the Community Caring Collaborative in Washington County said in a recent interview. “It’s a parade.”

According to a policy paper written by Withers in late 2009: “Washington County has been hit hard by the ravages of social change. None have been more devastating than the opiate crisis of the past 10 years. No family has been left untouched by the epidemic misuse of prescription drugs. The devastation left in the wake of this widespread addiction has led to a slew of grave statistics for very young children in Washington County.”

In her paper, Withers, quoting DHHS 2008 statistics, painted a dismal picture of Washington County’s children: “One out of three infants is born at risk due to substance exposure, low birth weight, exposure to trauma, preterm delivery, or birth to teen parents; the highest percentage in Maine of infants in child protective custody; the highest percentage in Maine of terminated parental rights; the highest percentage in Maine of children in special education; the highest percentage in Maine of children under the age of four dismissed from child care due to behavioral acting out.”

Turning it around

But talk to Withers today — less than two years later — and she uses a surprising word when speaking about the progress made in helping Washington County families become healthy: hope.

“I’m not the only one. Parents and providers are hopeful as well,” Wither said. DHHS emphasis on educating and bolstering parents so the family can remain whole, as well as a myriad of agencies such as Maine Families that work with struggling parents, seems to be creating a safety net that was inaccessible in the past.

Last year, 6,159 referrals of suspected abuse or neglect were reported in DHHS’ seven districts. Of those, 155 were filed in Washington County, and of those, less than half — 77 — were determined to be valid. Yet only 22 Washington County children are in state care or custody, and many of those cases are from previous years.

According to the 2011 Maine Children’s Alliance’s “Maine Kids Count,” 11 Maine counties have shown remarkable downward trends in the number of children in state care. Washington County dropped from a rate of 7.7 percent per 1,000 people to an impressive 3.3 percent. The state rate is 5.2 percent.

The percentage in nearly every county around Washington increased. Hancock went from 4.4 percent to 5.1 percent; Penobscot slightly increased from 7.1 percent to 7.8 percent; while Aroostook County dropped from 7 percent to 5.3 percent .

Beougher said family team meetings have become vital to the process. “We have such a dedicated staff and manager in Washington County,” he said. “They operate under the premise that a community is weakened every time a child leaves the community.”

Beougher said DHHS has focused on asking the right questions of families.

“We have come to learn that if you tell people what to do, they will be unlikely to respond,” he said. “But we have begun asking the right questions to make the best safety plan.”

Crocker said automatic referrals to mental health counseling were halted. “There is a great deal of difference between forcing someone into counseling and asking that person what he or she thinks counseling can offer them,” he said. As a result, he said, the money previously spent on mental health resources was funneled into kinship placement and family reunification.

This shift can lead to a sense of empowerment for a family that is feeling quite helpless.

“We were given the tools we needed to get our lives back,” Nathaniel Baker said. At one point the couple shared a bedroom in his sister’s mobile home with three other children. The couple separated. Nathaniel was drinking heavily. Nicole had nearly given up on a secure life, and Gabriel was barely speaking.

Today, they live in their own rental. Both are employed full-time, and Nicole is pursuing her nurses’ aide certification. They are planning ahead and setting goals.

“We’ve come a long way,” Nathaniel Baker said. “We are now an inspiration to ourselves and to Gabe.”

While the Bakers talked, Farnsworth evaluated Gabriel’s language and motor skills, and he passed with flying colors. She asked questions about his health, his hearing, his speech. She recommended a follow-up physical, a visit to the dentist.

“We stayed committed to each other and our family,” Nicole Baker said recently at her home. “We just needed some help, some direction. Without Ellen, we would have been without hope. Maybe we would have made it through, but Ellen made the road so much easier.”

It takes a village

Even with help and direction, the road can be rough. But in rural Washington County, the close-knit nature of its communities can help keep families together — and strong.

“Washington County is different,” Withers said, and not just in terms of success rates. “There is a feeling in Washington County that these are our families. The degree of separation between family members — a vital source of support — is less. The solution has to be all of us.”

“There is a great sense of community among professionals in Washington County,” Beougher said. “The realization is that it is critical for children to have a permanent family.”

Crocker said families still feel connected to each other in Washington County.

“Therefore it is easier in Washington County to accomplish kinship care, which is so effective,” he said. “Kids can stay in their own communities. They can stay in their schools, their churches.”

Withers said no one who works with families in Washington County, however, is wearing rose-colored glasses.

“The true picture is still serious,” she said.

“We are moving forward, but not fast,” Jane Brissette, director of Maine Families in Washington County, said recently. “Consider our numbers. They are not good. Out of 300 Washington County births last year, 16 were reported drug-affected. And even that is not an accurate reflection because it does not include any tribal members.”

In all of Maine, 276 newborns were reported in opiate withdrawal, up from 70 in 2005.

Withers said the average time addicted babies spend in the neonatal intensive care unit in Bangor is 3½  months, and distance — a two-hour drive on a good day — often can be a wedge.

“Parents are not able to get to Bangor easily. Others say, ‘Look what you did to your child.’ And the problems continue to mount,” she said. “Babies in withdrawal are difficult to raise. Addicted parents may be 14 years old emotionally even though they are 23. At the same time, because of the economy, we have less to offer people in terms of recovery services.”

Generations of untreated alcoholism fueled a hopelessness in the past, Withers said. Despite the recent attention to prescription painkillers, that hasn’t changed.

“In our lust to blame opiates,” she said, “we are forgetting the true dragon: alcohol.”

The economy of success

Layer after layer — poverty, isolation, trauma, opiate addiction — has been piled on Washington County parents, Withers said.

“This means the way out has to be layered,” she said.

And despite their recent successes, the existing programs can’t even be called a good Band-Aid.

“We need coaching services, in-home services, an array of services. We are missing such opportunities to help, and DHHS is not set up or funded for these programs,” Withers said.

Programs like these serve as roads and bridges towards a more stable path for families.

Because of the poor economy, Withers’ hope from how well programs are working is tempered by her fear that those same, successful programs will be lost.

Beougher said that under the current state budget the existing child welfare staff will remain intact, as will the intensive family reunification program.

But the highly successful Maine Families program will not be funded. Last year, Maine Families served 2,580 families statewide and 126 in Washington County.

“We will do the best with what monies we have, and continue to focus on all the people that are critical to a child’s well being,” he said.

“The challenge we have,” Crocker said, “particularly with a new [state] Legislature, is their mission and their public mandate is to downsize government. At the same time, the average citizen is not saying to ignore these children.”

Crocker said he believes the state Legislature is grasping that additional funding may be needed. “I am hearing some hopeful things,” he said. Crocker said he also believes there are areas within DHHS that can be streamlined so that funding can be reinvested in the programs that are proven to work.

The picture with the federal budget is more dismal, Crocker said. “It is definitely not pretty. The Congress has heard a clear mandate for a smaller government. Unfortunately in D.C., they are not going to try to make programs more efficient.

“They are going to slash and burn,” he said. “That is very scary.”

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