The proposed reductions in funding for the Department of Health and Human Services are being positioned by the governor as prudent fiscal management of Maine’s resources in his effort to balance the budget.
Dramatically reducing the funding that supports the homeless, chronically mentally ill, those stricken with substance abuse issues and families needing support and services to remain intact threatens the quality of life for all of us in Maine. Most importantly they threaten those with the least voice: our children.
To take just two interconnected examples in the governor’s budget: the proposed increase in funding for foster care and the Draconian reductions in funding for Private Non-Medical Institutions that address infant mental health (including successful family stabilization programs that support reunification).
Increasing foster care for children of parents dealing with substance abuse issues, such as bath salts, means that fewer resources are available to help treat and reunify families in proven programs such as those offered across the state by Stepping Stones and other agencies. The increased number of children in foster care is something that Maine should regard as a failure, especially when programs that helped reunify families are being defunded.
The dramatic increase in bath salts cases is the reason why additional children are being placed in foster care, according to DHHS. By placing children in foster care, parents are supposedly more likely to access substance abuse treatment and then seek support for family reunification. It is, of course, more complex than that.
The state is mandated to provide an opportunity for reunification. Bath salts cases are extreme and in no way the main reason that families seek access to family stabilization programs. Such cases trigger an intervention with the affected parents who are urged to seek substance abuse treatment and are more likely to achieve reunification if they attend a successful family stabilization program.
The increase in foster care funding seems to suggest that the governor is looking to circumvent established practice and send children who could be successfully reunited with their families off to foster-care before attempting to reunify a family through treatment and support. Our children deserve better. Clearly the reduction in PNMI funding indicates that access to family reunification services will be much harder to come by. If this is not a shift in policy on a state level it is hard to envision otherwise. Our families deserve better.
Now for the piece that isn’t just about balancing the books. Just because a child is placed in foster care does not mean the parent automatically begins to attend treatment. The parent would still be allowed visitation whether in treatment or not, and foster parents are not always trained in the issues around attachment. In addition, foster families are often viewed, by the parents in these cases, as trying to prevent them from regaining custody of the child.
For those of us in social services this goes against something that we have been told when creating programs that reunite families: Design programs that meet the need of the population not the need of a funding stream. We need to build healthy and safe families that can contribute to the community and thereby, our state.
Outside of proven family stabilization programs, cases can languish for months or years in the courts. The court has to make final determination on the well-being of the child. The choices are closing the case, and allowing the parent child to live together, or termination of parental rights. In either case, the child benefits from a quick determination. There is nothing worse than a child, or family for that matter, languishing in the systems for long periods.
Cases managed through family stabilization programs move exponentially faster in the judicial system. That is due to the amount of paperwork and evidence supplied to the court. Since such cases are in programs staffed 24/7, there is little that is not documented; from sobriety, to treatment progress, successful parenting and attachment.
When families are not in a program like this, there are issues with coordination of services and providers, gaps in documentation and lack of effort on the family’s part to achieve goals. All of these things delay the final determination and create a child that is “in the system.”
This is a financial burden to the state long-term, far beyond the supposed increase in foster care funding, because it masks the real lack of investment in Maine children and families through reunification programs. We all deserve better.
Charles T. Daly is the CEO of Stepping Stones Maine. He resides in Bangor.