The number of children removed from abusive homes in Maine has declined more than 50 percent in the past decade, as the Department of Health and Human Services has pursued a policy of keeping children with parents unless they face physical abuse or serious neglect.
The numbers mirror a national trend, supported by findings that children can suffer severe emotional trauma when separated from their families and placed in foster care.
However, the Maine Sunday Telegram has found that the trend also raises concerns about whether child welfare workers are acting quickly enough in cases where children are suffering or at risk of abuse.
Those concerns came into focus last week with the death of Ethan Anderson, a 10-week-old boy who allegedly was shaken and thrown into a chair by his father at the family's home in Arundel.
Gov. Paul LePage -- a victim of abuse as a child himself -- noted that DHHS has come under criticism in the past for removing too many children from their homes.
The agency's policies have now swung in the opposite direction, and officials may be too slow to take children out of homes where they are in danger, the governor said.
A day-care worker had contacted DHHS about signs of potential abuse of Ethan, his twin brother and 3-year-old half sister, but the department won't release information about when it received the report or how it responded.
The state removed about 3,200 children from their parents' homes annually about 10 years ago. Last year, that number was down by more than half, to about 1,500, said Theres Cahill-Lowe, director of the Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Child and Family Services. Cahill-Lowe, who has led the office for about a year, said she also thinks her agency might be erring too often on the side of leaving children in the home.
"I share the governor's concern," she said. "I do think that we seem to be not reacting in the same way we were with initial referrals (of suspicions of abuse). If in doubt, we need to react ... and safety is the paramount concern."
Cahill-Lowe said she is reviewing the department's policies on removing children from homes as part of a DHHS restructuring effort.
Many child-care advocates applaud the trend toward keeping more children out of what they say is a flawed and sometimes damaging foster care system. The over-reliance on foster care and that system's problems came to the forefront in 2001, when 5-year-old Logan Marr died while in foster care.
Logan was asphyxiated when her foster mother duct-taped her to a high chair, leading to investigations of foster care in Maine and launching reforms that began to trend toward removing fewer children from their families.
Most children whose cases are investigated by DHHS are left with their parents because most child abuse cases more accurately could be called neglect or a lack of parenting skills. DHHS workers come up with family plans to address concerns, although cases in which they find actual physical abuse or instances in which the neglect endangers the child requires that children be removed from the home.
In cases involving a child left in the home, DHHS tries to "get services into the home and get natural support in place, such as grandparents and friends," Cahill-Lowe said.
Child-care advocates said Maine should put even more effort into reunification of families or kinship care -- placing a child with a relative -- to further reduce use of foster care.
Cahill-Lowe said removing a child from a home, even one in which the child has been abused or neglected, is extremely traumatic. She said that state is increasingly likely to take a child from a home where physical abuse is suspected and ask relatives to care for him or her, resulting in a dramatic decrease in the number of children placed in foster homes.
Maine began using kinship care about seven years ago. Now about a third of children removed from a home go to live with a relative, rather than be placed with a foster parent, who is paid by the state to care for a child. The pay for foster parents starts at nearly $500 a month per child and increases, depending on the amount of special care a child needs.
Maine is moving toward kinship care at a faster rate than the nation as a whole, said Richard Wexler, who heads up the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. His group has been monitoring changes in Maine's child welfare system for more than a decade, dating back to the Logan Marr case.
Wexler, who warns against making major changes in the system in the wake of a tragedy, said the state has made "a careful, moderate progression" in child welfare over the last 10 years, led by the greater use of kinship care. He criticized LePage's remarks, saying that using the death of 10-week-old Ethan Henderson in Arundel as the rationale for a major shift in policy would be a mistake.
"Maine is one of the few child welfare success stories, and the governor ought not mess with it," he said.
Cahill-Lowe said Maine adopted kinship care because many people thought the parents of abusive parents were, too often, abusers themselves.
"The philosophy was that the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree," she said, but studies have found that relatives are likely to care well for a child who is taken from an abusive home, and they often welcome DHHS's involvement.
Actual physical abuse occurs in a minority of child welfare cases, Wexler said. Most cases could more accurately be termed neglect, often because of poverty.
Cahill-Lowe said she'd like to see more borderline cases handled by community groups rather than the department's social workers, who, lacking increases in staffing becasue of budget constraints, deal with heavy caseloads. In 2010, the last year for which numbers are available, the state fielded nearly 18,000 reports of suspected child abuse, down about 1,000 from five years before; but the number of substantiated cases was 6,348, up slightly from five years earlier.
Shifting oversight of those cases that haven't evolved to actual abuse or severe neglect would free up the department's workers to focus on more serious cases, said Cahill-Lowe, who said her office is working on a review of its policies as part of a departmentwide restructuring.
Agencies such as Head Start, Healthy Maine Families, child care providers and schools could help identify cases in which children aren't clean or well-clothed, aren't being fed regularly or show other signs of parental neglect, she said.
The problem, child welfare advocates said, is that organizations to which the state would like to shift some of the cases are suffering from budget cuts.
"They're cutting all these programs," said Lucky Hollander, who was head of legislative relations for DHHS for six years and prior to that was executive director of the Cumberland County Child Abuse and Neglect Council.
"The story is told in the budget," she said. "You can't disconnect the governor's budget with how people deal with these things."
Dean Crocker, who works as a mediator of sorts between parents and DHHS as ombudsman of the Maine Children's Alliance, said the approach calling for more early intervention is a good one, although he said the state's budget cuts don't support that.
He said children placed in foster homes are moved repeatedly from one to another, are unlikely to graduate from high school and are more likely to be on psychiatric medications than children who remain in the home or are in kinship care.
Placing a child with a relative when a parent can't or won't care for the child is how society traditionally has dealt with the problem, he said, and that practice needs support from more programs to help care for children in their extended families.
"Most of us believe that the child welfare system is important, but it's more important to keep kids out of the child welfare system," he said. "Most experts would say the state makes a lousy parent."