Confirmed cases of physical abuse of children in Maine increased by 52 percent from 2008 to 2016 even though the overall number of abuse and neglect cases declined slightly during that time, state statistics show.
For the same period, reports of suspected neglect and abuse – which the state categorizes as physical, emotional or sexual – rose by 31 percent.
The state’s system to protect children is under scrutiny after two horrific cases of child abuse came to light in the past three months, most recently in Stockton Springs, where police say 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy had been beaten at home for months by her mother and stepfather before dying Sunday. Sharon Carrillo, 33, and Julio Carrillo, 51, were charged Monday with depraved indifference murder.
Neighbors told the Portland Press Herald that when the Carrillos lived in Bangor before moving to Stockton Springs last fall, they called police and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to complain about suspected abuse, but it’s not known why Marissa was allowed to remain living with them. In another case in December, a Wiscasset woman was charged with depraved indifference murder in the death of a 4-year-old girl in her care.
DHHS officials have refused to comment on their involvement in either case.
The DHHS data reveal that Mainers are more likely to report suspected abuse and neglect to Child Protective Services than in the past. CPS handled 8,279 reports of abuse and neglect in 2016, a 31 percent increase over the 6,313 cases in 2008. Maine’s population and birth rate have remained relatively consistent during that period.
In that same time frame, physical abuse increased in Maine, while neglect and emotional abuse cases declined, according to DHHS statistics.
Physical abuse increased from 686 substantiated cases by CPS in 2008 to 1,042 cases in 2016, according to DHHS statistics. Sexual abuse cases did not show a clear trend, with 309 in 2008 compared with 280 in 2016, and neglect cases declined from 2,708 in 2008 to 2,274 in 2016. Emotional abuse declined from 1,580 cases in 2008 to 1,192 in 2016.
Overall, abuse and neglect cases have declined slightly since 2008. The numbers have gone up and down without showing a clear trend, with 2,527 substantiated cases of abuse of all types in 2008 compared with 2,268 in 2016, a 10 percent decline.
POSSIBLE LINK TO OPIOID EPIDEMIC
Dr. Lawrence Ricci, a pediatrician who specializes in child abuse cases with the Spurwink Child Abuse Program in South Portland, said child abuse is a major public health problem in Maine and across the country.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Ricci said. “We are seeing a lot of physically abused children. In our practice, we are very, very busy with physical abuse cases.”
It’s difficult to determine what drives the child abuse and neglect numbers, but Ricci said they often correlate with the economy. In bad economic times, families in poverty become more desperate and the financial stress may lead to abuse.
But unemployment rates are currently low nationwide and in Maine, as the economy has markedly improved since 2012.
Ricci said it’s possible that the opioid epidemic is related to the increase in physical abuse of children, although that’s far from clear.
“If it’s not the economy then one has to look at other stressors on families,” Ricci said. “In Maine, we have the stressor of substance abuse. It has had a profound effect on our state.”
Maine has been undergoing an opioid crisis over the past several years, with a record 418 overdose deaths in 2017, most caused by opioids.
“Child abuse in all its forms is the No. 1 cause of adverse health problems in adults,” Ricci said, but often it gets scant attention in the news, and from state and federal lawmakers. “Many of us talk until we’re blue in face for the need to protect children,” he said. “If there’s a sensational case everybody pays attention for a little while, and then it goes by the wayside.”
MORE INVESTMENT IN PREVENTION
Debra Dunlap, regional director of Community Partnerships for Protecting Children Southern Maine for Opportunity Alliance, a child prevention program that is scheduled to be eliminated by the LePage administration, said there are many trends happening at the same time, and no one really knows why the abuse numbers change over time.
“These issues are really complex and we have to be careful not to be speculative,” Dunlap said. “It is good that more people are making these reports (to CPS). We do know that families most at risk are those that struggle to meet basic needs, like having kids go to bed hungry.”
Ricci said more needs to be invested in child abuse prevention.
“There are so many opportunities for prevention that are shown to have real benefit for children,” Ricci said.
State funding for the $2.2 million CPPC prevention program is expected to end by Sept. 30, although children’s advocates are lobbying for the LePage administration to reverse course. Maine DHHS officials argued Wednesday that the program duplicates other state programs and is not evidence-based, a contention strongly disputed by Opportunity Alliance officials and others.
Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Paul LePage, said in a prepared statement that it’s possible a component of the CPPC program, the Parents as Partners program that connects parents with at-risk families, could continue in some way.
“The governor takes seriously the prevention of child abuse and the handling of child welfare cases, especially given his personal experience growing up in an abusive household,” Rabinowitz said in the statement. “A clear and effective child abuse reporting structure and intervention protocol is key to preventing further abuse and potentially saving the life of a child.”