In the wake of two recent abuse-related deaths, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) wants to deprioritize the reunification of foster youth with their birth parents, which is the commonly accepted primary goal in American child welfare systems.
“Placing the priority on family reunification forces the system and the courts to try to keep vulnerable children in a family when the best thing would be to remove the child from the situation,” LePage said, in a recent letter to the legislature’s Government Oversight Committee. “Parents who are unable or refuse to effectively take on the challenge of parenting should not be forced by the government to remain with the child, leaving the child vulnerable to neglect and abuse.”
LePage is also pressing the legislature (and has asked in the past) to classify failure to report suspected abuse or neglect as a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine.
The victims in the abuse deaths were both young girls – Marissa Kennedy, 10, and Kendall Chick, 4. Marissa lived with her mother and stepfather; Kendall was living in the home of her grandfather, where the woman charged with her death also lived.
It is not the first time LePage has voiced criticism of the state’s child welfare policies. After an infant was killed by his father in 2012, LePage told local media that “sometimes we’re putting them back too quickly and sometimes we’re not taking them out fast enough.”
The number of children entering Maine foster care was 552 in 2011, and has been above 900 each year since, according to federal data. Of those youth exiting foster care, the proportion who are reunified is consistently under 50 percent, and the percentage who are adopted has jumped from 28 percent in 2013 to 43 percent in 2016.
A prominent youth advocacy group in Maine said that while the cases should be reviewed transparently, there is no evidence thus far that Maine is too bent toward putting families back together.
“We think that it is premature to say that the problem with Maine’s child protective system is the prioritization of reunification,” said Claire Berkowitz, executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance. “We can honor the lives of Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick by taking an honest, open look into the system within which these girls should have been protected.
“And without looking for scapegoats or quick fixes that make us feel better in the short term, we can look at the flaws and missed opportunities in order to make policy and practice changes for the long term, so that we will not fail children in the future as we did these two girls.”
The Kennebec Journal’s editorial board echoed the need for an open and informed discussion.
The governor and his appointees in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services have access to more information, but that knowledge needs to be broadly shared to ensure the kind of team effort required to solve a problem of this size,” it said, in a column published over the weekend. “There are thousands of reported cases of abuse each year. These two cases aside, what is the state’s record in responding to these reports?”