EDITORIAL: Outrage and blame are warranted, but not enough to improve Maine's child welfare system

Jun. 30—The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

If you are concerned about a child being neglected or abused, call Maine's 24-hour hotline at 800-452-1999 or 711 to speak with a child protective specialist. Calls may be made anonymously. For more information, visit maine.gov/dhhs/ocfs/cw/reporting_abuse.

A heartbreaking, horrific series of four child deaths has rocked Maine and the communities where they took place.

A 6-week-old infant was allegedly shaken to death in Brewer on May 31, according to prosecutors. A 3-year-old girl from Old Town died on June 6. A child in Temple died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on June 17. And 3-year-old Maddox Williams of Stockton Springs died last weekend.

These deaths have rightfully been met with outrage, and people have understandably been looking for someone to blame. The push for accountability and consequences is natural and necessary. In three of the cases, with the exception of the death in Temple, a parent has been charged in the deaths of their children.

The alleged actions and abuses should be adjudicated and punished accordingly. There must be personal accountability. There must also be bureaucratic accountability, and societal accountability.

There is still a lot we do not know about these cases, such as whether, or to what extent, state welfare officials were involved before the deaths occured. But we do know some things. Court records show that police had told the Maine Department of Health and Human Services at least twice that Maddox Williams was being neglected, for example.

We expect police investigations, reviews from the Maine Children's Ombudsman and DHHS's own investigations with the help of Casey Family Programs to reveal more information. As the search for answers continues, however, it's not a question of whether the system has failed more Maine children — it's a question of how it has failed them, and what can be done to prevent future failures.

It's encouraging that the state is bringing in Casey Family Programs, a national organization focused on children's safety and reducing the need for foster care, to help investigate the recent deaths and develop policy recommendations. State officials should give that effort space to be as independent and unvarnished as possible, and then actually act on those recommendations once they materialize.

Just as blame alone won't fix Maine's persistent child welfare problems, neither will defensiveness from state government.

"It's our responsibility as a state and as a society to do everything we can to help children grow up safe and ensure they have the love and attention they need," Todd Landry, director of the Office of Child and Family Services at DHHS, said in a recent press release. "With the expert assistance of Casey Family Programs, we'll learn all we can from these recent deaths and continue our work to protect Maine children and support their families."

Unfortunately, it's no great stretch to say we've been here before as a state. The tragic cases of Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick ushered in a wave of scrutiny of Maine's child welfare system in recent years. As a recent BDN headline indicated, that scrutiny has started again after the four deaths in the past month.

This scrutiny cannot be cyclical. Neither can the resources or resolve to make things better for kids across Maine.

It's not enough to dole out outrage and punishment after these tragedies occur, or to be lulled into thinking they are unavoidable because they keep happening. We as a society must commit to providing more resources — not only to bolster child welfare case work, but to help Maine families before they descend into these nightmare scenarios.

There is a complicated, but not unaddressable, nexus of poverty, mental health and substance use involved in many of these cases. Policymakers cannot ignore the interconnectedness of many of these issues.

Working to address these society-level issues takes time, and doesn't deliver immediate justice in individual cases. It's also much easier to write than it is to do. But it must be part of a multi-faceted, sustained push to improve Maine's child welfare system.