In the face of ongoing concerns about the child welfare system in Maine, the federal government has signed off on the state’s planned expansion of prevention and treatment for families whose kids are at risk of falling into the foster care system.
Approval of Gov. Janet Mills’ plan by the federal Department of Health and Human Services makes Maine the first New England state eligible for new federal dollars to provide support services such as mental health counseling, substance use treatment and in-home parental skills counseling. The Family First Prevention Services Act also requires participating states to do more to help kids who end up living with relatives or other close kin and raises the standards for those children and youth who wind up in residential programs for the treatment of their emotional or behavioral problems.
Maine was the first state in the region to submit a five-year plan for lining up its child welfare programs with the landmark Family First Prevention Services Act, which President Donald Trump signed in 2018.
At least 15 states’ five-year plans have been approved, along with one Indian tribe’s, according to the Administration for Children and Families. Many other states and tribes have indicated they plan to submit an application or have already done so and are awaiting review.
Maine will now receive $2.4 million a year from the federal government for “evidence-based services proven to keep children safe while preventing the need for them to enter state custody.”
“All children should grow up in safe, stable and nurturing families,” said Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, in a press statement, adding that the state now has a “historic opportunity (to) achieve this vision by giving child welfare systems the tools and ongoing funding they need to prevent abuse and neglect and improve the lives of children and families who can remain safely together with the appropriate support.”
The law went into effect in 2018 as Maine’s child welfare system was under intense scrutiny in the wake of news about the deaths of two children, according to the Press Herald in Portland. Investigators found that the state Department of Health and Human Services failed to look in on the children often enough and didn’t adequately investigate numerous complaints and warning signs.
The department then hired numerous caseworkers and supervisors, boosted their training and beefed up family support programs, among other actions intended to improve the handling of abuse allegations.
But two recent audits by the state’s independent child welfare ombudsman found many problems continue at the agency with regard to when it’s appropriate to remove children from the parental home.
Four parents are currently facing murder or manslaughter charges stemming from four child deaths in the past three months, the Press Herald reported.