2017-10-20 / Community News

New approach for meeting needs of parents, children

By Amy Volk Special to the Leader

Children are our most precious resource. We hear this so often, it’s become cliché. However, the reality is that in the state with the oldest population, Maine children truly must be treated like our most precious resource.

To do so, we need to look beyond simply adding money to K-12 education. A new approach titled 2 Gen is fighting poverty by focusing on meeting the needs of parents and their children together in order to help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

A collection of experiences and conferences I’ve attended this fall has convinced me that the most effective way to truly prioritize young lives is by improving parents’ capacities.

We know that the wellbeing of a child is tightly linked to the wellbeing of their parents. As such, policies that stabilize family finances and increase earning capacity will benefit children and are critical to Maine’s economy as employers cry out for workers.

Sadly, globalization has de-industrialized and de-populated much of rural Maine. I have often said that poverty is poverty; however, poverty in rural Maine is particularly mean.

Critical resources may be dozens of miles away rather than down the block. Without access to reliable transportation and affordable, trustworthy childcare, parents cannot work even if they are capable and willing. Couple that with inadequate housing and you begin to understand how families can fall apart. Marry all those risks with substance abuse and you have a recipe for disaster.

Such family instability is catastrophic to children. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are serious childhood traumas that result in toxic stress harmful to developing brains and bodies- anything from moving 2-plus times in a year to abuse. Such toxic stress increases the risk of numerous mental and physical health issues, dramatically decreasing life expectancy and significantly impacting education.

Pediatrician Megan Sandel likens stable housing to a vaccine which provides multiple long-lasting benefits for families and society, such as $111 billion over 10 years in avoidable health costs.

McAuley Residence, founded in Portland by Mercy Hospital 30 years ago, has developed an extremely effective transitional housing program for women with and without children who are in recovery from substance dependency.

Women work with community providers to grow their capacity as responsible citizens, loving parents and capable providers. They are surrounded with support and yet held highly accountable, with an immediate commitment of at least 32 hours a week spent in productive activity.

Initially, this can be as simple as attending group or journaling, but eventually they must progress to working or attending school. Financial literacy, cooking and parenting classes are also part of the mix.

The average stay is less than 18 months and 80 percent of program participants are successful long term.

Another promising, but much newer program operating in Maine’s poorest county is Family Futures Downeast. According to its website, “Parents come with a legacy of generations of poverty, trauma, exposure to violence, substance abuse and addiction, and often a profound loss of hope generated by those experiences. FFD’s 360-degree supports help to ensure students’ basic needs are met and combine with intensive, structured coaching that builds skills and gives parents the opportunity to imagine and pursue the future they want for themselves and their children.”

Successful 2 Gen programs such as McAuley Residence, which require the difficult “braiding” of various funding sources will be easier to establish with the passage of important bi-partisan legislation introduced in Congress by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

The Two-Generation Economic Empowerment Act seeks to encourage programs that take a multi-generational approach, give communities and states more flexibility in developing targeted programs and increase funding for projects with a proven success rate.

Children should not be doomed by their parents’ mistakes, nor should their destiny be determined by their zip code.

It has been 50 years since President Johnson declared the War on Poverty.

In spite of the trillions of taxpayer dollars that have been spent on welfare programs, the poverty rate has remained largely unchanged.

It is time for us to go beyond picking up the pieces of broken families. We need to fund programs that equip them to be successful.

This approach may initially seem expensive, but it is well worth the investment so we can finally begin to break the cycle of poverty that traps too many Maine families, robbing our collective future.

Amy Volk is serving her second term in the Maine Senate and represents Senate District 30, which includes Gorham and parts of Scarborough and Buxton. She is chairman of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee and is also a member of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

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