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Seeking Answers in Maine

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eye on the news

Seeking Answers in Maine

Multiple child-abuse deaths in the state make clear that its approach to protecting vulnerable kids is not working. December 29, 2021
Politics and law
Health Care
The Social Order

Children are dying and lawmakers—in Maine, at least—want answers. In June, five children in the state, all four years or younger, died of neglect or abuse. In three of the cases, caregivers face manslaughter or murder charges; in at least one case, the family is well-known to child protective services.

What went wrong? The answers remain elusive, even after Casey Family Programs conducted an investigation for the state. Casey’s report, as the Portland Press Herald puts it, “did not go into detail about specific failures related to the spate of deaths that prompted the state to ask for help, focusing instead on systemic issues.” The report discusses matters like staff turnover and the need for parent mentor programs, as well as more communication among different agencies.

State Senator Bill Diamond, a Democrat and a past member of the Health and Human Services Committee, was not impressed: “I’m disappointed to say that I feel many of the deeper, longstanding issues within the department [of Health and Human Services] that have led to numerous child deaths in recent years have been missed,” he said. “Ensuring coordination between all those involved in a child welfare case, following national best practices, and supporting engagement between OCFS and parents are all things that we currently expect from of our child welfare agency. These recommendations appear to take a soft approach to urgent, severe issues.”

The soft approach is the Casey approach. The Seattle-based organization offers to partner with child-welfare agencies around the country often (as in this case) at no cost to the states involved. As it turns out, though, you get what you pay for.

Casey’s first priority, according to its website, is “safely” to “reduce the need for foster care in the United States by 50 percent.” What constitutes “safely” is an open question. Child-maltreatment fatalities have risen across the nation in recent years, from 1,660 in 2015 to 1,840 in 2019. One cause seems to be that kids are being left in unsafe homes or being reunited with their families (after doing short stints in foster care) when it is not clear that those homes have become safe. Casey’s agenda involves fixing racial disparities and various other left-leaning causes—not improving child safety.

Casey has given awards, for example, to New Orleans Juvenile Court Judge Ernestine Gray, who almost singlehandedly reduced the number of children in foster care by 89 percent from 2011 to 2017. Was this done safely? An article earlier this year on the website Crosscut suggested skepticism about the results: “How have those kids fared since? Hard to say. Casey Family Programs, a private nonprofit based in Seattle, studied Judge Gray’s work but declined to make its report public.”

It’s clear that Maine has a problem, but Casey is unwilling to talk about it because it would call into question the organization’s guiding principles. These most recent deaths are not even the most egregious. In 2018, Marissa Kennedy, a fourth-grader at Fairmount School in Bangor, Maine, was tortured and beaten to death by her parents. To say that Marissa’s family was known to authorities would be an understatement. Neighbors had reported violence that they had heard and seen, and mental-health professionals and pediatricians had filed 15 reports about her situation to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. At least two investigations were open, and authorities talked to her parents more than 20 times. Her teachers reported multiple long absences and other signs of trouble. A guidance counselor even went to her house on multiple occasions.

The state’s numbers tell a grim story. The number of children experiencing maltreatment jumped 30 percent from 2015 to 2019, while the number of children in foster care grew by only 12 percent. This suggests pressure being put on child-welfare workers to leave kids in their homes. Unfortunately, the percentage of children with a recurrence of maltreatment within six months of exiting foster care has almost doubled between 2015 and 2019.

Earlier this year, Maine’s Office of the Child Advocate did a more detailed assessment of what went wrong in various child-welfare cases. Marie Cohen, author of the Child Welfare Monitor blog, explains that the state “struggles to make good decisions around two critical points—the initial safety assessment of a child and the finding that it is safe to reunify the child with her parents. In its review of seven cases closed through reunification, the OCA found multiple incidents where children were sent home with insufficient evidence that they would be safe.” Cohen has detailed the pressures, both against removing kids from their families and in favor of reuniting them too soon. Maybe now that Casey’s recommendations have been called out as the dangerous bromides that they are, residents of Maine (and other states that work with Casey Family Programs) will start to demand some real answers.

Photo: tzahiV/iStocl

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