BIDDEFORD, Maine — On Easter Sunday in 1940, the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, also known as the Good Shepherd Sisters of Quebec, founded Saint Andre Home to provide housing for unwed mothers.
At that time, because of the stigma of unwed motherhood, the sisters provided a place where a young woman could reside until her baby was born, and often the nuns helped place the newborns with adoptive families.
The organization served many young, pregnant women and was housed in a large institutional building on Pool Street.
But as unwed motherhood became more socially acceptable, the organization changed with the times.
Saint Andre now serves fewer people in its four residential homes, one each in Biddeford and Bangor, and two in Lewiston.
More changes are in the works, and if the organization is to survive, it must adapt once more, said Saint Andre Executive Director Reid Scher.
On June 30, the organization will lose 90 percent of its funding, he said.
Almost all of the organization’s funding comes through the state’s Infant Mental Health program. Money for that program comes through MaineCare which includes state and federal funds.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child and Family Services is reworking how it delivers services and what it delivers to the population currently under that program.
The financial loss to Saint Andre will require closing three of four of the group homes that now serve 16 mothers and 21 babies, said Scher. He said the organization hopes to raise funds through private sources to keep one of the homes open.
Saint Andre must develop new programs and/or expand existing programs and services, said Scher.
He said he hopes the organization will be successful in obtaining funding for the new initiatives that the Office of Child and Family Services will begin later this year, so Saint Andre can significantly expand the community services it provides to young women and at-risk children.
“We need to recreate the agency,” he said. “This is a very challenging and really very exciting time for Saint Andre.”
Under the current Infant Mental Health program, the funding follows the child, said Therese Cahill-Low, director of the Office of Child and Family Services. Children being served, who are usually toddlers, must be diagnosed with a mental health problem.
Currently, the state is spending $10 million a year and only serving 82 children, said Cahill-Low.
Despite the amount of money being spent, “for 82 children, we weren’t seeing the outcomes we expected to see,” she said.
Cahill-Low said a number of the mothers whose children are served by the program have substance abuse issues, and the program’s “current structure doesn’t allow treating their substance abuse.”
The program “wasn’t helping the parent or the child,” she said.
New initiatives being developed will cost 25 percent of what’s currently being spent and will serve hundreds of children, said Cahill-Low. The old program only served children up to age 5, she said; what’s being developed will also help older children.
The state is currently spending $4 million for its share of the Infant Mental Health program, but new programs will only cost about $2.5 million, she said.
Only state money will be used to fund the new initiatives.
In addition, said Cahill-Low, her office is working with the office of substance abuse to address parents’ drug and alcohol problems, with approximately $1.7 million targeted toward that effort.
These changes at the state will have a profound effect on what services Saint Andre will offer, said Scher. The organization plans to expand outreach services that it already provides, he said, and focus on prevention and intervention before children are removed from the home and sent into the foster care system.
But the problem of providing residential services for pregnant teens and young mothers remains. Scher said he plans to work with the city to address this issue, in at least a limited way.
To help fill the housing void, the Biddeford Housing Authority plans to renovate a property to house homeless families; the target demographic will be single mothers, said BHA Director Guy Gagnon.
He is applying for a grant from the MaineHousing to create four units in a building on South Street.
Preference will be given “to the same population Saint Andre Home has been helping, but will have a hard time helping in the future because of changes in funding,” said Gagnon.
These women and their children are “falling through the cracks,” he said. “This is an attempt to fill some of those cracks.”
Biddeford Health and Human Services Director Vicky Edgerly said she’s concerned about this population.
“I’ve seen an influx in my office of homeless, pregnant moms with no resources,” she said.
In the last two to three weeks, she has placed two young, pregnant women in emergency housing provided by the city.
If there were enough available low-cost housing options, she said, she could easily place 50 women.
Cahill-Low said housing young, pregnant women and young mothers is a problem all over the state, but it’s not something her office has the resources to provide.
The state and community must grapple with that problem, she said.
Until then, said Cahill-Low, “there are no good answers.”