Maine Improving child welfare services

from: timesrecord.com

As lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage undertake a top-to-bottom review of state government, with an eye toward improving services and also reducing costs, they might want to take a look at the latest Child Welfare Services Ombudsman’s report for inspiration.

The 2010 report, issued last Thursday by the Maine Children’s Alliance, offers a detailed analysis of the state’s child welfare services by Dean Crocker, president of Maine Children’s Alliance. In his additional role as ombudsman, Crocker investigates complaints regarding child welfare services overseen by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

His annual report, then, can be seen as a kind of report card on how well we’re doing — or not — in meeting the needs of children suffering from abuse, neglect or exploitation, or who might be awaiting adoption or placement in a foster home.

These, obviously, are children we would want to make sure our state government is doing everything it can to ensure their needs are fully met. We don’t want to “nickel and dime” the services that might be required, nor do we want to spend money needlessly paying for services that don’t work and might even put children at greater risk

The good news, says Crocker, is that “fewer children enter state custody, more remain secure in their communities, and costs to the state are greatly reduced.”

He attributes those positive findings to a new emphasis on placing children referred to the state with “kinship families” whenever it is possible to do so safely.

“When children are placed with relatives, friends or neighbors, they have the continuity of staying in familiar surroundings with people they know and trust,” Crocker said in a release accompanying the 22-page report. “This sort of stability is crucial to helping children thrive during vulnerable periods.”

Caseworkers now emphasize this as a goal as they work closely with families to keep the child safe and the family intact. A key factor in ensuring that new approach succeeds is making sure child welfare services and support are provided in timely fashion as needed.

From 2004 to 2010, the number of Maine children in “kinship care” has jumped from 17.6 percent to 38.9 percent. With more children being placed in “kinship care,” rather than being placed in DHHS state care or custody, the state’s residential costs have dropped 86 percent from 2004 to 2010.

More effective care at less cost is exactly what we hope will take place elsewhere in state government. But let’s not attribute this one example to some kind of magic.

As Crocker notes throughout his 2010 report, the positive trends in child welfare services occurred because, first and foremost, advocates for children worked closely with DHHS and families to make sure the needs of children referred to the state were the top priority.  And the very fact that Maine has an ombudsman — someone who independently investigates complaints and works with stakeholders to achieve what’s best for the child — obviously creates accountability for the state’s child welfare programs. But families must be held accountable, too.

The ombudsman’s yearly report provides, then, a benchmark for measuring ongoing improvements in Maine’s child welfare services. It also flags areas that still need improvement. In that regard, we urge lawmakers and the governor to heed Crocker’s call for further attention being paid to unresolved issues.

“Too often, youth in state custody still face uncertain futures when they leave the system,” he says. “Maine still fails to identify a large percent of children at risk. And we need to provide more support and education for the children’s caregivers and and community.”

In other words, we can — and must — do better.

letters@timesrecord.com

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