FARMINGTON — Franklin County is one of three counties identified as having the highest rates of child abuse in the state. Androscoggin and Somerset counties are the other two, according to data released from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

While child abuse rates in Franklin County are higher overall than the state average, child neglect and sexual abuse rates are significantly higher, Renee Blanchet, executive director of the Franklin County Children’s Task Force, told a diverse group of community members Wednesday.

The pilot group was gathered to discuss the root of the problem, not solutions, she said. Discussion was aimed at obtaining information to help create strategies and preventive plans to reduce those numbers.

“Over the last year, DHHS has partnered with the Maine Children’s Trust to create a three-year project that seeks to invest in establishing and coordinating services to reduce child abuse in Maine,” said Doug Saunders, community coordinator for the Franklin County Children’s Task Force.

The state has tasked the local group, along with Advocates for Children in Lewiston and a similar organization in Somerset County, to help formulate a plan, Blanchet said.

The three counties have been selected as demonstration sites. Other counties will be drawn in as the project progresses. Maine child abuse rates are high and many children fall into state care, Blanchet said.

The goal is to reduce the number of children under state care by 500 over the three years, she said. About 2,500 children are in state custody.

To start, each county is holding a similar gathering of community partners called the FRANKLIN (Friends Reducing Abuse and Neglect of Kids Living in our Neighborhoods) Advisory Panel, to discuss the data and root causes of the problem. 

Based on rates per 1,000 children, ages birth to 17, the data show Franklin County rate of child neglect is 42 percent higher than the state average. Child neglect is depravity of food, clothing and shelter whether intentional or otherwise. Most of these numbers, included in the data, are likely intentional neglect, Blanchet said.

The rate of sexual abuse in Franklin County is 88 percent higher than the state average; physical abuse is 30 percent higher; and overall, the rate of child abuse is 32 percent higher, Saunders said.

“Overall, more than 100 children in every 1,000 living in our county are experiencing some form of abuse and/or neglect each year,” he said. “That’s an estimated one in every 10 children.” 

Blanchet and Saunders asked about 30 people, including law enforcement officers, doctors, teachers, clergy and social workers, to share their thoughts on the root cause of the high rates of child abuse and neglect in Franklin County.

It is like a tree, Blanchet said, you can cut it down, but the roots are still there. It is about what is below the surface. Why is Franklin County different?

Top answers included rural poverty, substance abuse and cultural/generational patterns.

The loss of a local manufacturing base that provided comfortable incomes without a lot of education was one answer to the why of poverty. 

While families are more stressed, there is also a sense of hopelessness.

The American dream doesn’t exist for this generation, one participant said of the cultural/generational patterns. 

Church attendance and other support systems are dwindling, meaning there are fewer eyes on children. The breakdown of families and neighbors paying less attention were other responses to the question. Fear was another.

As for substance use and abuse, we are living in an extremely addicted society where people will do anything to get that fix, Maine State Police Sgt. Matt Casavant, said. Casavant is chairman of the Franklin County Children’s Task Force board of directors.

“Mayberry is gone in Maine,” he said. “There is not a community that is not affected.”

People use money for food and necessities to buy opioids, he said.

Participants were asked to recommend families and children who could be asked similar questions.

“We can talk about what we see, but we need to hear what they feel,” Blanchet said.

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