Maine Voices: Hard work is happening to protect children, support families – Press Herald

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We’ve pursued solid policy decisions grounded in facts, consideration of multiple perspectives and fair and productive dialogue.
As the 130th Legislature concludes its work, we can look back with pride on a session that accomplished much for Maine families in the face of great challenges, not least among them the COVID-19 pandemic. We made these strides by pursuing solid policy decisions grounded in facts, consideration of multiple perspectives and fair and productive dialogue.
As a result of the tragic deaths of children in Maine last year, the state has made “a record-breaking investment in multiple facets of the child welfare system,” Reps. Michele Meyer and Michael Brennan write. Elena Srubina/Shutterstock.com
Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, is a second-term state representative and House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, and Michael Brennan, D-Portland, is serving his sixth nonconsecutive Maine House term and is House chair of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. He also served three terms in the Maine Senate.
We owe our constituents no less, particularly when it comes to priorities like child safety that strike close to our hearts and inflame our sense of justice. The death of any child is a tragedy for their loved ones, communities and our state as a whole. Child safety is everyone’s priority, and it is our duty as legislators to tackle the underlying causes of child abuse and neglect head on. The circumstances that result in children being harmed require an understanding of the facts and a commitment to solutions that are based in reality.
That’s why we were discouraged to see some of our legislative colleagues misstate important information about the tragic deaths of children last year. The reality is that none of the four children who died last May and June was in state custody. Two, not 25, of last year’s fatalities had findings of abuse or neglect and a minority had open cases with the state. We know this because, for the first time and in the interest of transparency, the Department of Health and Human Services voluntarily posted these data. If you can’t get the facts right, you can’t get the policy right.
That’s why throughout the legislative session, policy committees have spent hundreds of hours delving into the nuances of the work of state agencies and nonstate partners to better understand where there are gaps, communications breakdowns and other challenges that need to be addressed. These committees identified paths forward, and the Legislature advanced those strategies through legislation and the supplemental budget.
The result of this work is a record-breaking investment in multiple facets of the child welfare system. The bipartisan supplemental budget included our bill, L.D. 393, which enacted system-changing investments, including:
• Expanding kinship navigation services to support grandparents, aunts and uncles, and others who provide formal and informal kinship foster care to children.

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• Increasing funding for the Parents As Teachers initiative through the home visiting program to work with parents to increase skills, support healthy child development and prevent abuse and neglect.
• Bolstering the Homebuilders program, which provides intensive, in-home crisis intervention, counseling and life-skills education for families who have children at imminent risk of coming into state custody.
• Requiring DHHS to consider how children and families served by the child welfare system can better access assistance such as: housing, transportation, child care, home visiting, behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment and more.
• Funding a contingency fund for child and family services staff for the express purposes of providing immediate aid to families to help them provide proper care for their children.
• Establishing a special projects manager in the DHHS Commissioner’s Office to work across offices, agencies and systems to assist in the coordination of services to prevent child abuse and neglect.
Initiatives in the governor’s proposal, also passed with bipartisan support, included additional children’s emergency staffing resources to provide caseworkers backup on nights and weekends to alleviate overtime. This will help us better care for our workers and the children and families they serve. Further legislation (L.D. 1960, now enacted as Public Law 2021, c. 550) strengthens the Child Welfare Ombudsman’s Office, an independent agency that provides services to families involved with child welfare and informs the work of the Office of Child and Family Services.
The Health and Human Services Committee has reviewed DHHS reports on improved policies and newly implemented programming, and asked probing questions to ensure these are meeting the community’s needs. The Education Committee has completed work to improve school-based services and ensure equitable access to quality supports for children.
All told, the Legislature, engaging and working with DHHS and the Mills administration, has plotted a clear course toward improvement. We have funded and enacted the tools to make it happen. The focus now must be on urgent implementation and tracking ongoing process – not more talk and task forces.
This critical progress depends on advancing the work that has already been done and continuing to move in the direction that the facts point us. Our children deserve no less.
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