By Joe Lawlor
Social service providers slammed the LePage administration for its decision to end a statewide child abuse and neglect prevention program even as Maine has witnessed its second horrific case of child abuse in three months.
State officials say the $2.2 million Community Partnerships for Protecting Children program duplicates other Maine prevention programs and is not evidence-based.
Maine Department of Health and Human Services officials surprised nonprofit leaders in a meeting a few weeks ago by saying the program that launched more than a decade ago would not be renewed, and without giving clear reasons why, said officials with Opportunity Alliance, the South Portland-based nonprofit that started the program.
"It is our duty to the Maine taxpayers to ensure that programs we fund are not duplicative of one another. Their money needs to be spent in the most effective and efficient ways possible," DHHS spokeswoman Emily Spencer said in an email response to questions from the Portland Press Herald on Wednesday.
The decision by DHHS preceded the death Sunday of a 10-year-old girl in Stockton Springs who authorities say died of battered child syndrome, but came after a Wiscasset woman was charged with depraved indifference murder in connection with death of a 4-year-old girl in her care on Dec. 8.
Ken Kunin, South Portland schools superintendent, which works closely with Opportunity Alliance on the program, said that DHHS is "wrong" that the program is providing services available elsewhere.
"It doesn't duplicate. They offer direct help and support for families and communities," Kunin said. "It's been a tremendous asset in South Portland. More kids attend school, are healthier and parents have really been connected to services. It's really been a tremendous program."
Debra Dunlap, regional director of CPPC Southern Maine for Opportunity Alliance, said it makes no sense to eliminate prevention programs that can stop family problems from becoming acute.
"It would be like building hospitals with only emergency rooms," Dunlap said.
'WE KNOW WE PLAYED A CRITICAL ROLE'
In southern Maine, where the program has been established for about a decade, CPPC partners with about 60 groups, including schools, nonprofits, law enforcement, local governments, churches and others to identify and help families at risk of abuse and neglect.
Opportunity Alliance officials argue the program has saved children from difficult circumstances, although they acknowledge that like many prevention programs, the benefits are difficult to measure. Just two years ago, the state expanded the program to other communities, such as Bangor and Belfast, which makes the move to end the program all the more puzzling.
"The safety of kids in Maine is in jeopardy, and supportive services for families who need help will be vanishing," said Mike Tarpinian, executive director of Opportunity Alliance.
Child abuse has been in the spotlight in Maine recently with some high-profile cases, most recently in Stockton Springs, where Sharon Carrillo, 33, and Julio Carrillo, 51, were charged in connection with the beating death of Marissa Kennedy. She was Sharon Carillo's daughter and Julio Carrillo's stepdaughter. Police reported the 10-year-old received daily beatings from the Carillos for months before dying Sunday. The Office of Chief Medical Examiner performed an autopsy and determined that Marissa died of battered child syndrome.
The Carrillos have been charged with murder, and made a court appearance in Belfast on Wednesday.
Neighbors from when the family lived in Bangor said they called police and Maine DHHS over concerns about child abuse, but it's not clear why Marissa was allowed to continue to live with the Carillos. The couple moved from Bangor to Stockton Springs last fall.
Tarpinian said it doesn't make any sense to end a program that had been helping to reduce the number of abuse cases in the state over the past decade. In Cumberland County, where CPPC has been established the longest -- about a decade -- substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect plummeted from 445 in 2008 to 261 in 2016, the most recent year available, despite DHHS launching more child abuse investigations during that decade. Opportunity Alliance officials say because so many factors go into the trends, including state policies, cultural trends, overall declining crime numbers, demographics and other issues, it's impossible to know exactly how much the prevention program helped.
"We know we played a really critical role," Dunlap said. "We know more kids are living safely with their families because of this program."
QUESTION OF DUPLICATING SERVICES
Statewide, substantiated abuse and neglect cases dropped from 2,521 to 2,268 from 2008 to 2016, although most of the CPPC programs outside of Greater Portland are much more recent -- starting after 2015.
The $800,000 per year state contract with Opportunity Alliance is slated to end Sept. 30, as are contracts with four other nonprofits, including Penquis in Bangor, Community Concepts in Augusta and Broadreach Family and Community Services in Belfast, either in September or this summer.
The state spends a total of $2.2 million per year on the prevention program, Tarpinian said, and a quality prevention program will save the state money as fewer children end up in crisis and need Child Protective Services and foster care.
The CPPC program began as a pilot program in Portland by the Opportunity Alliance in the mid-2000s, and a comprehensive program launched in 2008 in South Portland's Redbank Village and Brickhill apartments. The program has expanded to all of southern Maine, Lewiston, Augusta, Bangor and Belfast.
Spencer said the programs duplicated the state's existing Child Abuse and Neglect Councils, which are entities created by the Maine Legislature that work to prevent child abuse and neglect.
"Maine's (Child Abuse and Neglect) Councils serve the same families that the CPPCs were intended to serve," Spencer said.
Dunlap said the Child Abuse and Neglect Councils do not have the resources to conduct community-based programs like CPPC does, and the programs do not duplicate.
Spencer said the program is not "evidence-based" and that there was also a question of funding.
"When originally established, DHHS believed that the CPPCs were an evidenced-based program. Upon further research as we considered renewing and expanding, it has been determined that they are not evidenced-based, but are seen as a method for engaging communities with the goal of preventing child abuse. This is the same goal of Maine's statutorily established CAN Councils," Spencer said.
BENEFITS ARE DIFFICULT TO QUANTIFY
But Dunlap said that CPPC, while not meeting the rigorous scientific standard of evidence-based, is the best that's available. There are no community-based prevention programs that meet the evidence-based standard DHHS is asking for, she said.
"Every aspect of the model we are using is based on research that shows what families need to keep kids safe from abuse," Dunlap said. "It's not a simple recipe where you can put the ingredients in and get a cake. How do you prove something that didn't happen?"
It's difficult to count how many people are served by the community-based programs, Dunlap said, but in South Portland, at least 1,630 individuals are helped per year.
The community-based prevention programs provide many services and are difficult to explain, Dunlap said, but one example is the Neighborhood Resource Hub on Westbrook Street, between Redbank and Brickhill in South Portland. The hub is a combination food pantry and a place where people can connect to social services that they may not be aware of, such as signing up for federal heating assistance, Medicaid or Affordable Care Act insurance. Employers will post job listings looking for workers.
Becky Morse, a volunteer at the Neighborhood Resource Hub, said she has seen how the service benefits families.
"It's a safe place, and it gives people a sense of security where people can go and get their questions answered, find out where to get help. They can be instantly directed," Morse said. She said the food pantry is also a great resource to have within walking distance, as people can pick up bread and fresh vegetables.
(c)2018 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)