Maine’s Department of Human Services is popularly represented as either an agency that fails to do nearly enough to stop child abuse or as a hair-trigger reactionary that goes off at the slightest sign of trouble, real or imagined. The sources of these conflicting views are complicated, but one of them is the secrecy of the crime. Unlike bank robbery or assault with a gun, child abuse is often committed in the privacy of a home with the victim unable to get help, so that the general public does not know the extent of the problem.
Acting DHS Commissioner Peter Walsh calls child abuse an endemic in Maine. It has not, like an epidemic, suddenly leaped up in frequency to catch everyone’s attention, but instead, year after year, remained a mostly silent problem that has slowly become more serious. For instance, the total number of DHS referrals of abuse or neglect in 1993 was 6,379 and rose to 9,067 last year; the number of children removed through court action rose from 833 in 1992 to 1,034 in 2001. There is some fluctuation in these rates over the years, but the overall increase suggests they are unlikely to decline if Maine continues to act as it has.
Today in Augusta, the department and the Maine Children’s Trust, a statewide nonprofit trying to prevent child abuse, will try something new. With approaches to disease used by its Bureau of Health, it will look for ways to change how people view child abuse with the goal of changing the culture that allows it to continue. Its conference today could be the start of something important, a chance to take a fresh look at a pernicious problem.
The goal of the conference is ambitious, one that could easily become mired in the hopeful but vague jargon of the helping professions. If DHS is successful today, it will gather a sense of what has worked elsewhere – Maine is not alone in this challenge – what is understood by local Child Abuse Neglect Councils and what new suggestions could be used soon to change public awareness about the problem. It will, as the Health Bureau does with a disease, find ways to publicize the extent of the danger, describe prevention strategies and improve treatment for victims.
DHS is criticized regularly because of the nature of its work, but by looking for new solutions for preventing child abuse it should find support even from its critics – if the agency seriously considers the diverse ideas that should emerge today. Changing a culture even on an issue where most people agree can take many years, decades even; starting to change a culture, however, takes some preparation and one good day’s work.