May 07, 2021

Protect the children

The death of any child in Maine is a tragedy. The horrific death of Tavielle Kigis struck the Bangor community, as well as the entire state to its core. As a voice of the community your editorial of Nov. 18 was both thoughtful and in most points, reasonable. It correctly pointed out that both stronger laws and additional financial resources are needed to combat the tidal wave of abuse and neglect Maine’s children endure daily.

The Bureau of Child and Family Services has 298 caseworkers at present; that is the highest number of caseworker staff in DHS history. No casework lines have been eliminated, or frozen despite the financial cuts imposed upon state government during the past four years. But 298 people spread out across this state simple cannot respond to the flood of referrals Child Protective services receives each year. Last year alone, DHS received 16,857 reports of abuse or neglect.

New laws allowing more aggressive intervention into families at risk will not solve the problem. Those who argue this week that DHS acted too late to protect Tavielle will next week argue DHS acts too soon, and are too intrusive into the sanctity of the family.

More financial resources and better laws must be coupled with an acceptance by each of us, that the business of preventing child abuse is our collective responsibility.

In this complex and complicated culture, it is all too easy to live our lives in relative isolation to those around us. Police enforce, teachers teach, service providers provide, caseworkers work to protect children. Yet children still die. Abuse and neglect continue to escalate. It is only when the entire community accepts responsibility for protecting children that our children can be assured safety.

Despite this paper’s assertion, Maine has a good record of protecting its children. In 1992 the department opened investigations in 4,781 cases, an increase of 781 investigations from 1991. Maine currently has 2,178 children in state custody, the highest number in a decade. But, more must be done to maintain children safely in their families. Maine is moving toward this goal with its emphasis on family preservation services.

As for the assertion DHS hides behind confidentiality laws, I contend the opposite. Confidentiality does not exist to protect DHS, rather confidentiality requires the department not elect the expeditious path of defending its bureaucratic self at the expense of those already victimized. It exists to protect the family members, siblings and other concerned individuals from the sensationalism surrounding events like the death of Tavielle Kigas. DHS can withstand the criticism which accompanies confidentiality. Some of that criticism is legitimate, however, devastated families should not be forced to endure a media side show to satisfy public curiosity.

It is completely unnecessary to convene yet another panel to review cases involving serious injury to or death of children. Such a panel already exists — both in statute and in fact. An inter-disciplinary group, including physicians, law enforcement, the attorney general’s office and others outside the department meet on a monthly basis to examine child death and serious injury cases. This professional montly review occurs without additional expense to taxpayers. Why recreate that which already exists?

To prevent similar child deaths in the future, people must be more cognizant of those around them and less willing to endure and endorse the social isolationism which is prevalent across this nation. Maine’s child welfare services must be adequately funded and staffed. Why did the system break down? For the same reasons that an angry taxpayer in a small New Hampshire town gunned down two innocent employees at the town office. For the same reasons that an apparently ordinary man in Lewiston hideously raped a 10-year-old child and then hanged himself. For the same reasons that during the next 12 months hundreds of children in Maine will suffer abuse, neglect and even death at the hands of their parents and others. Because it is easier to assign blame to faceless public agencies than to take personal responsibility for the cruelty and ignorance which pervades our society.

Meris Bickford is director of the Maine Department of Human Services’ Bureau of Child and Family Services.

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