A new report from the Maine Children’s Alliance shows Maine’s young people have suffered mistreatment and mental health problems at a higher rate than other states in recent years.
The report looks at child welfare data and school surveys from 2020 to 2022 and underscores the negative consequences the pandemic lockdowns have had on Maine’s children and teenagers.
According to the 2023 Maine KIDS COUNT Data Book, nearly 34,000 Maine children lived in households below the federal poverty level in 2021, accounting for 13.8 percent of the state’s children.
The report also highlights Maine’s highest-in-the-nation rate of child maltreatment in 2020, at 19.0 per 1,000 children, which is more than double the national rate of 8.4. In 2021, 4,263 children experienced substantiated child mistreatment, according to the report.
Since the onset of the pandemic, only five Mainers under the age of 20 have died while testing positive for the virus, according to Maine CDC data.
Yet the report shows that those Mainers who were least likely to die from the virus nonetheless bore the brunt of the Mills Administration’s pandemic policies, especially teenagers in their middle and high school years.
The report identified teen mental health as a growing crisis in Maine, with high rates of anxiety and depression exacerbated by the pandemic’s academic disruption and social isolation. The data show school closures and the shift to remote learning were nothing short of a catastrophic.
Half of all teen girls reported feelings of hopelessness, and a quarter of all teens dealt with anxiety in 2021. From 2020 to 2021, emergency room trips for suicide ideation by teenagers increased by more than 500 visits, and this increase did not recede in 2022.
“During 2020-2022, the COVID-19 pandemic brought sweeping changes to how youth attended school and interacted with their peers,” the report said.
“Parents in Maine reported on the 2020-2021 National Survey of Children’s Health that their children have “anxiety problems” at high levels – representing as many as one in four children ages 12-17,” the report said.
However, many media outlets in Maine are covering the alarming report without bothering to mention the impact of the Mills Administration’s pandemic policies and lockdowns.
News Center Maine’s report doesn’t mention Covid-19. The Bangor newspaper reported that child poverty decreased in 2021, without mentioning the sharp increase caused by lockdowns in 2020. WMTW’s report doesn’t mention Covid-19 or lockdowns.
The Press Herald’s Lana Cohen was one of the few reporters in the state whose coverage of the report included Covid-19 and lockdown policies.
The report itself only mentions Covid-19 a handful of times.
Rep. Kathy Javner (R-Chester), a Republican on the Health and Human Services Committee, said the report from the Maine Children’s Alliance can only be properly understood within the context of the Mills Administration’s draconian lockdown policies.
“The report shows that locking down Maine’s businesses and schools was the most harmful thing a governor of Maine has ever done to Maine children,” Javner said.
The nonprofit group’s analysis follows the 2022 Child Welfare Ombudsman’s annual report, which found Maine’s child welfare agency — the Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) — had failed at nearly every dimension of its job description.
OCFS, a sub-division of the sprawling Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), is tasked with investigating claims of child abuse or neglect, intervening in situations where children are at risk, and counseling troubled family units with a view toward reunification.
However, the Ombudsman’s report concluded that OCFS failed to identify when children were at risk, failed to investigate allegations properly, and failed to address significant weaknesses in their investigative processes.
No one in the Mills administration has been fired or asked to resign following the systemic, multi-year failures of the child welfare agency, including DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and OCFS Director Todd Landry. Although Republicans have called for reform, they’ve stopped short of demanding either Lambrew or Landry’s resignations.
After the Ombudsman’s report came out, there was a flurry of activity from Republican lawmakers around a bill that would attempt to solve the problem by making OCFS its own cabinet level agency, separate from DHHS.
That bill, introduced by Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook), has yet to receive a public committee hearing.
Since January, the urgency to reform OCFS has dissipated somewhat. There appears to be little bipartisan appetite for making major changes at the child welfare agency, with Mills having previously signaled her resistance to substantive reforms.
These trends in deteriorating teen mental health have also been recognized by Education Commissioner Pender Makin, who told lawmakers last month teen mental health issues were among the biggest problems facing the state’s public education system.
“What we are seeing is a huge increase in mental health,” Makin said. “We have a crisis of disengagement.”
Here’s the Maine Children’s Alliance’s 2023 report:
Here’s the 2022 Child Welfare Ombudsman’s report: