In 2001, Maine's child welfare system launched an active reform effort in the wake of the death of a five-year-old girl in foster care. The girl died while in the custody of a former child welfare worker. The death garnered national attention and was the catalyst for self-assessment. Maine’s child welfare reform is distinguished by the unique combination of approaches used to achieve and sustain better outcomes for children and families.
The initial step in evaluating the child welfare system was Maine's first Federal Child and Family Services Review. The study revealed poor permanency outcomes, lack of placement stability, and concerning data regarding the time taken to respond to reports of abuse and neglect. Children were staying in foster care for long periods, and a large number of the children in the system were not living with families. These findings confirmed that problems in the state's child welfare system were severe and pandemic, and gave rise to Maine’s Child Welfare Reform.
Maine first implemented a data-driven management system. A monthly management report was developed to track and report on key indicators on a regular basis. The Residential Review Initiative was launched, marking the start of focused efforts to decrease reliance on residential treatment for children, to increase family and community placements, and to improve permanency outcomes for children. In addition, a Residential and Permanency Review Process was implemented statewide, requiring prior approval for all residential placements and active work to achieve permanency for youth in residential care.
The shift from heavily relying on residential care to favoring family and community placements has been a critical change. Residential care may worsen a child’s condition due to transfer of behavior from child to child, and exiting the child welfare system without a permanent family is correlated with deleterious outcomes such as early pregnancy or parenthood, criminal involvement, homelessness, lack of employment or dropping out of school. Compared to children in non-relative and residential care, foster children in kinship placements experience greater placement stability, feel more positively about their placements, and have fewer behavioral problems.
Another important component to Maine's Child Welfare Reform is the implementation of Family Team Meetings. This process brings family members together to create a plan for ensuring child safety. In addition, key policies were realigned in support of the new Family Centered Practice Model and funds were reinvested to increase community services to support children and families living at home.
Prior to reform, a child entering foster care in Maine was likely to stay for five years. Now, the average is two years. In late 2001, there were 3190 foster children in Maine. In 2008, there were only 1998. The number of foster children in residential care dropped from 747 (over 26 percent) in 2004 to 245 (12.2 percent) in 2008. During the same period, kinship placements have steadily increased from an average of 360 to an average of 508. Maine has so dramatically and quickly turned around its child welfare system that many states are now looking to it as a model, including Louisiana, Virginia, and Maryland.