Maine has more work to do to help families in crisis

By Professor Deirdre Smith
Excerpt from an op-ed published in the Bangor Daily News

Professor Deirdre SmithThe Maine Legislature has increasingly recognized the important role that extended family members can play in the lives of kids whose parents are unable to take care of them. But these relative caregivers are still not receiving all of the help they need.

As we’ve seen in headlines in recent years, many Maine families are facing tough questions about the care of children whose parents are struggling with substance use disorders and related problems such as homelessness, poverty, illness, and incarceration. Members of children’s extended family — grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings — frequently need to step in, often in emergencies, to take them into their care. In some cases, the relatives do so at the request of the Department of Health and Human Services, and in others, the family attempts to address the child’s needs on its own.

The Maine Legislature has responded to the growing need for relative caregivers to serve as “kinship families” in the public child welfare system and for children who are not in DHHS custody. On September 1, a major revision of Maine’s minor guardianship law goes into effect, and the reforms are aimed specifically at providing more tools for courts to help children and families who must use this form of private child protection.

Maine has had a minor guardianship law since its founding. Originally the law was to appoint an adult to manage the property of orphans. Today, children need guardians for a far different purpose: to ensure that a nonparent caregiver of a child, usually another relative, has the legal authority to care for a child. Accessing medical care, enrolling in school and applying for safety-net benefits are all made easier by this law. Until the newly enacted reforms, Maine’s guardianship law did not include language that would help a court craft orders that reflected the specific situations of kinship families: a child’s parents are still alive but temporarily unable to be a primary caregiver.

To read the full op-ed, please visit the website of the Bangor Daily News.