The two-year state budget that took effect July 1 dropped funding for infant mental health programs provided by private, nonmedical institutions in residential settings. The change resulted in the closure of several programs that help hundreds of children throughout Maine, many of whom are under threat of being taken from their parents into the custody of the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The highly regarded Family Stabilization Program that our organization, Stepping Stones, operates in Bangor, Harrington, Houlton and Saco was among the programs that closed. The program routinely served more than 150 clients each year providing intensive education, counseling and other services to deliver on DHHS’ stated goal of reunification of children and parents. Since 1999, 70 percent of program participants successfully completed the four- to six-month program, and those families left our program intact.

Our organization will survive and continue to serve people in need. Our Bangor facility will become a shelter. Other funding sources will allow our Family Stabilization program in Houlton to remain open another year. Our home in Saco will serve birth mothers using our long-standing adoption program.

What’s disappointing about this situation is that we were forced to stop serving families who were living in our residential programs and receiving education, treatment and support when funding ceased on June 30. When they left, many had not yet finished the program, and they had no place to go to continue receiving those valuable services.

Stepping Stones offered to allow families to stay in our residences and complete the program at our expense, but we were told by the DHHS that they had to leave.

According to the DHHS’ Office of Child and Family Services, savings from closing these long-established residential programs like ours were to be reinvested in eight newly formed regional outpatient community-based programs that would provide in-home services to families under investigation for abuse or neglect. If those programs failed, there was an increase in funding of $4.5 million for foster care for those children taken from their parents. The restructuring saved $8 million in a year when the state budget ran a surplus of $58 million.

Currently, we are keeping our Family Stabilization Program open in Houlton under a revised model by using private funding and our agency reserves. Some of our staff have reoriented their work to serve clients in a community-based, rather than residential, setting. Others have moved on to seek opportunities elsewhere as we look to repurpose our former homes to other uses congruent with our mission.

What gets lost in this discussion of budgets and residential versus community-based treatment approaches are a couple of very important questions: Where are the children? And what are the impacts on those kids who were well served by this program but now cannot access the supports and services they need?

The new state-funded programs – long ago promised – have yet to come online to replace the programs that have closed. One request for proposals for community-based services was issued on July 1. No start date for services has been announced, so there’s a gap between the June 30 end of services through the Family Stabilization Program and the start of services through a new structure.

In the meantime, what services are available for these troubled families struggling to remain intact because of homelessness, drug addiction, unemployment, child abuse and neglect?

Referring parents to individual treatment may appear cheaper to the state, but the impact of these difficult situations on developing children, especially those 5 and under, is traumatic. The price will be borne by the state long after the savings in a surplus year have evaporated.

Maine deserves better.

Charles Daly is CEO of Stepping Stones, a Maine-based agency that has provided adoption, social services and family reunification services since 1977.