The Maine Department of Health and Human Services offices on State Street in Augusta, shown in this December 2017 file photo. Credit: BDN file photo

The killings of three young children in Maine since the start of last month, allegedly by parents, follow years in which the state has directed more resources to its child welfare system and seen that system field and look into more reports of suspected child abuse.

State lawmakers have approved funding on three occasions to hire more child welfare caseworkers, supervisors and case aides since the killings of 4-year-old Kendall Chick and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy more than three years ago focused fresh scrutiny on Maine’s child welfare system. They’ve approved measures to bolster their pay, and staff turnover has been trending downward.

Still, the state in 2019 reported that the number of substantiated child abuse victims reached its highest level in years, and the rate of child abuse victims in Maine was more than double the national rate, according to the annual KIDS COUNT report from the Maine Children’s Alliance.

The killings of three children in less than a month is unprecedented in Maine, a former state human services commissioner said last month. The state last month also saw a young child in Temple die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and last week saw an 11-month-old nearly die of a drug overdose.

Improving children’s safety involves prevention strategies that don’t all even directly involve the child welfare system, child welfare experts said.

More reports and investigations

Between January 2019 and February 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services added 130 more staff to its Office of Child and Family Services, bolstering the ranks of child welfare caseworkers and supervisors.

At the same time, the office was fielding more reports of suspected child abuse and neglect, which is common following high-profile tragedies such as Kendall Chick’s and Marissa Kennedy’s deaths that heighten public awareness of child abuse.

The state fielded nearly 27,000 reports of suspected child abuse and neglect in 2019, up from about 25,000 in 2018 and fewer than 20,000 in 2017, according to the latest Child Protective Services annual report.

Federal data show Maine surged past the rest of the nation in 2019 in the rate of children whose families received child welfare investigations. That year, 65.5 of every 1,000 Maine children were the subject of an investigation, compared with 47.2 of every 1,000 children nationally.

The increase in investigations was “likely due to an increased awareness of child protective work and the importance of reporting suspected abuse and/or neglect that resulted from the two high-profile child deaths in late 2017 and early 2018,” said Jackie Farwell, a DHHS spokesperson.

In addition, an increase in 2018 stemmed from a directive from former Gov. Paul LePage’s administration following Marissa Kennedy’s murder to review many of the cases the state had referred to contractors because they had been deemed lower-risk, Farwell said. It later was revealed in court that the state referred Marissa Kennedy’s family to one of those contractors.

“Even when they aren’t removed, the idea of visitors coming from DHHS is traumatic for children,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

Mark Moran, a former child protective services worker in Bangor, said a rising number of child abuse investigations doesn’t necessarily correspond with an increase in child safety.

In addition, he said, “I’m not sure the problems and deficiencies underlying the child  welfare state are going to be solved by an increase in the number of staff.”

Prevention

Research on child abuse prevention has shown that the most effective strategies don’t directly involve child welfare interventions. They involve providing economic support to improve families’ stability and parent education efforts such as home visits to new parents from nurses and social workers, according to a U.S. CDC compilation of child abuse prevention strategies.

Economic support strategies, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit targeted to low-income families, “percolated to the top” in research on mitigating child abuse and neglect, said Dr. Bart Klika, chief research officer at Prevent Child Abuse America.

Specifically, he said, a refundable version of the Earned Income Tax Credit — which directs money to eligible families even if they don’t owe taxes — has been associated with “significant reductions in abusive head trauma.”

“We’ve also seen that for every dollar increase in the minimum wage, there are significant reductions in child neglect,” he said.

Childhood poverty is often confused for neglect, Wexler said, and even incremental increases in income can be effective at addressing the problem. “It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it can be fixed with money,” he said. “What’s really needed is concrete stuff, like rent subsidies and cash assistance.”

As Maine has poured more resources into child protective services, two programs aimed at preventing abuse and neglect have ended in the last year, with DHHS citing their high costs and limited reach and effectiveness.

The Parents as Partners program, through which parents who have been through the child welfare system to act as peer counselors for parents currently involved with the system, ceased operating on Wednesday, according to Louise Marsden, vice president of child and family services at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, which held the state contract to run that program.

DHHS terminated the program’s funding in June 2020 and then conducted an evaluation to decide whether to continue the program, Marsden said. That evaluation, completed in April, found some benefits, but also a high cost and few differences in outcomes between participating families and others.

Also in June 2020, DHHS stopped funding another program called Community Partnerships for Protecting Children, an initiative that worked in select neighborhoods around the state with high rates of child abuse and neglect reports.

The program oversaw Parents as Partners in those neighborhoods, community councils  as well as neighborhood hubs where residents could seek out economic and social support for themselves and neighborhoods.

DHHS said in its evaluation that it couldn’t tell whether the program itself was making a difference in children’s safety.

DHHS is currently focusing much of its prevention effort on implementing the Family First Prevention Services Act, Farwell said. That law, signed by former President Donald Trump in 2018, overhauls federal child welfare funding by allowing states to spend it on prevention strategies. However, it limits state spending to programs considered evidence-based, meaning that research has demonstrated their effectiveness.

That evidence-based approach can be a challenge, because such programs often require people with specialized training to run them, their reach can be limited, and the programs can be costly, said Shawn Yardley, CEO of the Lewiston social services organization Community Concepts and a former child welfare supervisor.

“It may be effective with a smaller group,” he said, “but it leaves other people on waiting lists or not being served. If you’re talking [about] prevention, you have to have a more universal approach.”

Some longtime prevention approaches the state has had in place include Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Councils that operate in all 16 counties. Those councils oversee parent education programs in their regions and training for mandated reporters — those required to report suspected child abuse and neglect as part of their professional duties.

However, the councils aren’t “really robustly funded,” Yardley said. Those councils currently receive about $1.8 million from the state each year, a level that hasn’t changed since 2018, according to state contracts.

The prevention councils have been proven to “move the needle for families” when it comes to mitigating abuse and neglect, said Heidi Aakjer, assistant director and prevention coordinator at the Maine Children’s Trust, the statewide nonprofit that oversees the prevention councils for the state. The trust tracks their effectiveness through surveys with caretakers who have completed their trainings and other programs.

According to Aakjer, 75 percent of respondents reported an increase in family strength after completing a prevention council training. The councils focus on “protective factors” that help new parents build skills in managing stress, recognizing normal child development behaviors, and developing external support systems.

In partnership with the prevention councils, the Maine Children’s Trust recently launched the Front Porch Project, trainings designed to help community members recognize signs of abuse and neglect and intervene when they appear. The project is funded through private donations made to the Maine Children’s Trust after Marissa Kennedy’s death.

The Maine Children’s Trust also oversees the state’s Maine Families home visiting program, which sends trained workers into the homes of new parents to provide education, address parents’ concerns about their baby’s development and behavior, and refer families to other services if they need them. The state is seeking to expand this program, which served about 2,000 children in 2019, under the Family First Prevention Services Act.

Moran pointed to Maine’s public health nursing program as another successful preventive program. It sends public health nurses to homes to educate and support new parents and those with children who have complex medical needs, including drug-affected babies.

That program was largely decimated under LePage’s administration, which let vacancies go unfilled and resisted complying with a law requiring that it hire nurses, and the program still isn’t up to full staffing.

“It’s the biggest prevention program I’m aware of,” Moran said. “If there’s a red flag, those nurses would be in a great position to see and identify those before there’s a bigger problem.”

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.