A child welfare caseworker for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is pictured in Portland on Feb. 21, 2020. Credit: Callie Ferguson / BDN

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Melissa Richardson of Bridgton is a master of social work student at the University of Southern Maine.

As a lifelong Mainer, mother and social worker, I can say with confidence that there is something seriously disturbing with how we value the youth here in our home state. I personally feel that the children in this state are our future and we will all depend on them one day to be contributing members of our society. It’s imperative that our children are able to obtain the skills and tools they will need to lead healthy and productive lives, which we all will benefit from someday.

So, I’m disheartened that our most vulnerable and marginalized population of children here in Maine appear to hold the least value when we look at the lack of funding and resources we as a state are willing to invest in them. Currently, one in four children living here in Maine are experiencing some type of mental health issue and nearly half are unable to access the mental health programming they need. While there are many different reasons our children continue to struggle to obtain these needed resources, they all can be traced back to a lack of funding. I find it disgusting that a lack of funding is what is prohibiting our youth and their families from being able to access the programming that is designed to assist them in developing the skills and tools they need to be successful.

To illustrate, let’s look at one of the community-based programs available here in Maine called home community therapy or HCT services. This program is designed to deliver in-home and community-based therapeutic supports to children and their families that are more intensive than outpatient therapy. This program is designed to provide support to families in learning how to manage and navigate the mental and behavioral health needs of their children.

One of the key elements of home community therapy services being delivered with continuity and integrity is their collaborative team approach, which consists of a master level clinician and a bachelor level behavioral health professional. There has been a shortage of qualified behavioral health professionals in this state for as long as I can recall, which directly and adversely impacts how long children and their families have to wait on a list before getting services. It is not uncommon for families to have to wait for a year or more before being connected to an agency that can provide the service based on the child’s geographical location.

Those who determine programming reimbursement rates at the state level have known for years that one of the reasons we as a state cannot secure enough behavioral health professionals is directly linked to the low reimbursement rates. At an agency reimbursement rate of less than $60 an hour, bachelor level behavioral health professionals are lucky if they get paid $16 or $17 an hour.

Agencies cannot afford to pay more per hour after one considers employers’ fees for their employees above and beyond their hourly pay and the mileage and other work-related reimbursements they pay. Agencies are lucky if they are able to break even financially every month.

There are also livable wage issues for the behavioral health professionals that have on average about $30,000 to $40,0000 in student loan debt. How do we expect to ever obtain qualified behavioral health professionals when we are asking them to work in a high burnout rate job for not much more than they could be making working at a fast food restaurant?

I challenge the state to put its money where its mouth is and to prove that we as a state do in fact value all of our children. Maine’s children are our future and will be our next leaders, doctors, teachers, electricians and or laborer’s. The success of our state is dependent on the future generation’s contributions to our society and what we are willing to give them for support now.