June 06, 2020

When helping adults, don’t forget children

The NEWS’ lead editorial on April 17 called for giving Melodie Peet more than one year to turn the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation around from a predominately institution-based bureaucracy to one offering an array of appropriate community-based services.

Basically, I support that position. There is no question that Commissioner Peet was faced with a daunting task when she came to Maine. I particularly applaud her efforts to openly discuss the closure of one or both of Maine’s mental health institutes to make available the necessary resources for community-based services which should be a better alternative for most of those currently served at Bangor Mental Health Institute or Augusta Mental health Institute.

The bone I have to pick with the current DMHMR administration is in the area of children’s services. My work for several years was with an agency that contracted to provide children’s services for DMHMR and DHS. More recently I have followed children’s services in Maine as a concerned citizen.

It is the adult side of DMHMR’s efforts that generally captures public attention by way of class action suits, court mandates, debates about closing or not closing the institutes, crimes committed by adult mentally ill patients or former patients and other newsworthy events.

In the meantime, DMHMR had developed since the early 1970s a pretty respectable array of children’s services both directly through its own staff and through grants and contracts with non-profits specializing in a variety of services. I am most personally aware of the early prevention services (from birth to 5-year-olds with emotional problems, physical disabilities, mental retardation and a range of other difficult-to-diagnose delays that have great potential for being resolved or improved through close and careful work with parents, other family members and professionals and para-professionals from many disciplines depending on the child’s needs).

This team approach involving the child’s family and the family’s support system has the best potential for the present well-being of the child in question and the future adult that child will become in a few short years.

It is, I think, this kind of plan and range of services that Commissioner Peet has in mind for her community-based system for the adults served by her department. While working toward that goal, she has allowed a significant deterioration of the children’s services that, if continued and supported, could go a long way to prevent new adults (our current children) from needing as much from DMHMR in their futures — and many who would need nothing!

I do not fault Commissioner Peet for her vision and commitment to the adult population. But I would have expected her, in the research she must have done before taking the position, to have found out that Maine had a quite well-respected children’s mental health system. It was not totally wonderful. There is not a totally wonderful system anywhere in the United States. But it was respected, it had shown constant improvement since the early 1970s and, by most accounts, parents feel they have been well served.

With all the attention to the adult side of the system we are in many ways throwing out the babies (quite literally) with the bath water. It is a shame that so little has been done to protect and preserve the early prevention system that should be looked to as a model for community-based services for the adults.

It is not too late to re-examine and reconsider how children’s services can be retained and strengthened. A new children’s program manager should be hired quite soon but that person will be the only central office position devoted to children. “Use it up; wear it out; make it do” is a well-known Maine adage. I had not thought it applied to human lives but to tools, machines, clothing and the like. I fear we are going to have a “make-do” children’s system during the several years it will take to put a quality adult system in place.

It is poor planning to let one system die while giving birth to a new one, particularly when what is dying has been preventive in nature.

Jane Weil is a resident of Steuben.

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