The state has been reeling from the beating death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy, allegedly at the hands of her mother and stepfather. It’s impossible to know for sure at this point what the Maine Department of Health and Human Services should have done differently. But what we do know is that we wouldn’t see the decimation of critical child and family services from the administration of a governor who took child abuse more seriously.
Days before Marissa Kennedy’s death last month, DHHS decided to cancel funding for Community Partnerships for Protecting Children, or CPPC, a child abuse prevention program. The $2.2 million earmarked for it will stop flowing Sept. 30.
An administration that’s serious about taking on child abuse would be, first and foremost, most serious about its prevention.
CPPC has been working for more than a decade in a handful of Portland-area neighborhoods with at-risk families before they became involved with Child Protective Services. It expanded to Bangor, and even more recently to Bridgton, Sanford, Lewiston, Rockland and Augusta.
The program works specifically in neighborhoods with high rates of involvement with Child Protective Services, and the idea is to work with at-risk families before they become engaged with the system. Representatives from community organizations involved in the effort meet regularly and talk about families they’ve encountered and what they need. Other organizations at the table offer help depending on the need — connecting a family with resources to pay a heating bill or the next month’s rent, for example. Parent partners with past experience in the child welfare system coach other parents currently going through similar situations. And community hubs act as a first line of defense against difficult family situations becoming abusive family situations: A community hub in South Portland’s Redbank/Brickhill neighborhood offers fresh produce, connections to social services and, more simply, a neighborhood gathering point.
Neighborhood connections are a crucial part of any prevention strategy, which is why CPPC is all about fostering them. Also crucial to child abuse prevention is meeting a family’s basic economic needs.
DHHS’ explanations for canceling CPPC simply don’t add up — and further indicate that the LePage administration is more serious about building budget surpluses, claiming the mantle of small government and bestowing tax cuts, than it is about serving Maine’s most vulnerable residents.
One part of the explanation is that the CPPC’s efforts duplicate those of the state’s Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Councils. Those councils handle parent education efforts in the counties where they operate, but they don’t work intensively in individual neighborhoods as the CPPC programs do. The organizations running CPPC should know that the councils aren’t doing CPPC’s work: All four of them also separately hold state contracts to run the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Councils.
If DHHS is serious about the prevention councils taking on more intensive, on-the-ground work, the department should also be talking about investing more resources in the prevention councils. But it isn’t. The department has mentioned only cutting “duplicative” programs.
It’s not exactly a revelation that the LePage administration doesn’t take child abuse prevention seriously. If it did, Maine residents wouldn’t have seen their state’s safety net shrivel up over the past seven years.
They wouldn’t have seen Temporary Assistance for Needy Families stop serving more than 8,000 families, including 15,000 children. They wouldn’t have seen the decimation of the ranks of public health nurses — who can pick up on unsafe family situations during home visits — even as the Legislature funded their positions. They wouldn’t have seen a state panel charged with investigating infant deaths simply stop doing its work for three years as the state’s infant mortality rate rose. (Abuse of children age 4 and younger represent the largest share of abuse cases.) And they wouldn’t see the Office of Child and Family Services, which is responsible for child welfare, continue to be led by an interim director nearly a year after the departure of its last permanent director.
Gov. Paul LePage’s press secretary on Thursday issued a statement saying, “the Governor takes seriously the prevention of child abuse.” His actions indicate otherwise.
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