CONTRIBUTORS

Don’t turn back on Maine child welfare reform

Posted May 16, 2012, at 8:38 p.m.

Children are not numbers. They are flesh-and-blood human beings who deserve our best efforts to help them grow up safe and healthy. But if policymakers don’t understand the numbers, they never will be able to craft the right policies to help those flesh-and-blood children.

In the wake of a high-profile child abuse tragedy, the death of Ethan Henderson, there have been claims that Maine’s efforts to keep more children safely in their own homes, instead of consigning them to foster care, have gone too far. But the numbers tell a different story.

The reforms began after Logan Marr, a little girl needlessly taken from her mother, was killed by her foster mother. They began after it became clear that Maine was an extreme outlier, taking away far too many children. And they took off after the PBS series “Frontline” exposed the failure of Maine’s take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare to the entire nation.

The numbers tell us how much things have improved:

• For starters, there’s the most important number, the one that measures safety.

No state can prevent every child abuse death. Though each is the worst form of tragedy, let us be grateful that the number is low enough to rise or fall due to random chance — especially in a small state such as Maine.

That’s why the federal government uses a different measure: the percentage of children reabused in any way after their cases become known. Since Maine began its reforms in 2003, that percentage has decreased by 20 percent. With caseworkers spending less time on false allegations and trivial cases, they have found more children in real danger and made Maine’s children safer than they were during the era of take-the-child-and-run.

• One recent news account mistakenly claimed that the number of children removed from their homes in Maine has declined by 50 percent. That’s wrong, and all it takes is two clicks of a mouse to prove it.

In Maine the number of children removed over the course of a year peaked at 1,052 in 2000 and 1,047 in 2001. Readers can find the data online at http://1.usa.gov/qIsyUK. Thanks to the reforms, the number of removals fell to 760 in 2010, the most recent year for which these data are available: http://1.usa.gov/qeEOZY.

So yes, entries declined, and rightly so — but by about 27 percent, a modest 2.7 percent per year, not 50 percent.

• The number that fell by about 50 percent is the number of children in foster care on Sept. 30 of each year. But that number falls for reasons totally unrelated to whether fewer children are taken away in the first place, such as children being adopted or simply kicked out of the system at age 18 with no family at all.

• My organization compares the propensity of states to take children from their homes by comparing entries into care to the number of impoverished children living in each state. By that standard, Maine still takes away children at a rate slightly above the national average. Maine’s child welfare reforms need to be strengthened, not reversed.

And finally, one more number: 15,000. That’s the number of cases examined in two massive studies of children in typical cases seen by workers for agencies such as Maine DHHS. In those typical cases the children left in their own homes typically fared better even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care. That’s not surprising since most cases don’t involve the brutality people think of when they hear the words “child abuse.” Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect” — like the case of Logan Marr.

Because state leaders in Maine came to understand all this, by 2009, child welfare in Maine had transformed from a national embarrassment to a national model, becoming a finalist for Harvard’s prestigious Innovations in American Government Awards.

That doesn’t mean no child ever should be taken from her or his home. Rather, it means that foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses. Logan Marr had to lose her life before Maine learned that lesson. To forget that lesson now would be like spitting on her grave.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org.

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