As law enforcement officials, we know we won’t always be in the right place at the right time to stop a crime as it is committed. It is a hard reality that much of our work happens after someone has been hurt or something has been lost. That is why it is important to have both legislation and programs that work pre-emptively to make our communities safer and more secure — especially for our community’s youngest members.
We need to prepare safe and secure environments for our children, not just in their earliest years, but in their earliest days. Many Maine parents rely on child care providers to care for their children as soon as they go back to work. As such, access to high-quality child care, and legislation that ensures child care providers and facilities are well-equipped to provide safe care, are of the utmost importance.
Think about it. Children attend early child care programs where much of their critical early learning takes place anywhere from age 6 weeks to 5 years. That means they are put in these settings in some of their most vulnerable years of life, including years before they are verbal. Even if a child is able to express that something has gone wrong, a single transgression in those early years can be extremely consequential.
It is up to us — parents, law enforcement, lawmakers and concerned citizens — to put in place the safeguards that ensure our kids will have healthy, safe experiences.
This issue reaches every corner of this state. More than 70 percent of Maine children under the age of 6 years old have both or their only parent in the work force. Parents depend on their child care providers to help lay strong social, emotional and cognitive foundations for their children and help prepare them for successful lives. Maine employers need reliable child care so their employees can come to work with the peace of mind that their children are safe and well cared for while they work.
Our youngest citizens also need environments and experiences that contribute positively to their brain development. Child care occurs in some of the most important years of children’s development. The foundation we lay from birth to 3 years old determines many outcomes for the next generation. This is particularly salient when we think about at-risk kids.
Research confirms what law enforcement knows from our experiences on the front lines against crime: When at-risk kids have access to high-quality early learning, they are more likely to enter school ready to succeed, are more likely to graduate, and are far less likely to commit violent crimes as juveniles and adults. A recent report from the non-profit Fight Crime: Invest In Kids said that in 2014, there were 15 arrests for every 100 Mainers aged 17 to 24. Investing in high-quality early childhood programs can help put kids on the right track from the very start and keep them from becoming one of these statistics.
There are several steps Maine lawmakers could take to help ensure our state’s child care establishments are up to the standards that our children need and that our public safety depends on. Providers should be supervised until they receive proper background clearance from the state, including a standardized process for fingerprinting, just as we do for teachers. All child care providers should receive the basic and necessary safety training they need before they begin unsupervised care for children. And, child care providers should comply with the nationally recognized best practices for student- teacher ratios.
We understand ensuring these standards will cost money. But we also are here to say that small investments in preventive measures and quality standards pay off in the long term. Quality may cost, but it also counts.
As parents, citizens, and law enforcement leaders, the safety of our children is our first and foremost priority. We urge our lawmakers to set up the safeguards and infrastructure necessary for safe, high-quality child care and early education across our state. Waiting to do so risks creating a window for potential harm to occur to some of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.
That is a risk that we aren’t willing to take.
Eric Samson is sheriff of Androscoggin County; Phillip Crowell is chief of the Auburn Police Department; Brian O’Malley is chief of the Lewiston Police Department.