The deaths of five kids, all 4 or younger, within weeks of each other in June has brought intense scrutiny again on Maine’s child protection system, just as it did three years ago after the deaths of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy, just as it did following the death of Logan Marr in 2001.

Each of these times, there has been a desire to believe that if someone in a position of authority had just made better decisions, a child would still be alive, and that if child protection workers were just better at their jobs, children would be spared abuse and neglect.

If only that were true.

While there’s no doubt the Office of Family and Child Services within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services needs reform as well as additional tools and resources, the focus cannot be only on that agency.

The problem is much bigger. To get at it, we have to ask bigger questions: Why are so many kids at risk of abuse and neglect, and why are so many parents unprepared and overwhelmed?

System needs reform

A new review of child protective services tries to put the problems at the agency in context. The deaths of children who had contact with the state were not the result of individual poor decisions, the report argues.

Instead, case workers were making choices within a complex, overstressed system, with the best information available at the time, however limited and incomplete.

That doesn’t take the system off the hook. But it does mean that any reforms need to focus on getting the right people the right information at the right time as much as possible, and providing enough time and space to use that information to make the right decisions for at-risk children.

The state has been hiring and training new child protective staff for months now, as the agency tries to gain the capacity necessary to give each case the time and focus it needs.

In order to have a strong agency, the public must also show it values the work. We can’t blanch at paying workers higher wages, if that’s what it takes.

And as outlined in the Casey report, state officials also must improve coordination and communication with its partners: hospitals, law enforcement and family service providers.

But even once they accomplish all that, child protective services still will be operating in a society where too many families don’t have the resources for a safe, healthy life, and where too many parents are too busy, stressed or distracted by their own challenges to be who they need to be.

Families need support

Those challenges manifest in many ways. Just one example is the increasing number of children who start school far behind where they should be, the result of too little attention at home from rushed, stressed or checked-out parents. These students start behind and largely stay behind, making success in school difficult.

Their problems are related to poverty. Students lack sufficient food and sleep. They live in unsafe, crowded or unstable housing. Their family members work odd hours at unfulfilling jobs, and many live with chronic illness and substance abuse disorders.

These are not the conditions that create prosperous children. Fortunately, we are not powerless to change them.

When food assistance was increased and broadened recently, families were relieved of some of the stress that comes with poverty. Same with the child tax credits passed under the American Rescue Plan and extended under President Biden’s Build Back Better plan.

Investments in affordable housing, preschool and child care, also included in the president’s plan, also directly support young families, giving them the breathing room they need to build their lives.

Those investments will help not only in Maine but across the country, where the pressures of poverty affect children in all the same ways they do here, leading to all the same kinds of problems.

We all want a child protection system so good that no kid dies, and that every child who suffers from abuse or neglect is found and helped. But that system doesn’t exist.

Certainly, Maine’s most vulnerable kids need a robust agency to protect them when their families don’t.

But their families also need the resources to live a stable life, and kids need to see that their communities value them enough to provide it.

Reprinted from The Portland Press Herald.

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