When agencies, health care providers, and educators from across Maine convened at the Central Lincoln County YMCA in Damariscotta on Thursday, Nov. 2 for the Midcoast Community Collaborative’s early childhood convening, one thing they agreed upon is that the current system is not working.
“We are all doing all we can, but we’re doing it separately … The way we think about this problem has to go beyond child care,” said Jessica Berry, assistant superintendent and special education coordinator at the St. George Municipal School Unit, a founding member of the Midcoast Community Collaborative, and the organizer of the Nov. 2 event.
“Things are not going great for us, no matter how hard you’re working,” Berry said, addressing a room of about 40 attendees representing agencies from the governor’s office and Maine Childhood Developmental Services to local schools, child care, and health care facilities.
Berry was referencing data presented by state officials about the state of early childhood care in Maine. Maine children have less access to early childhood care and services than children in many other states, according to data presented by Ana Hicks, policy director of human services in the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future.
When it comes to early childhood care, “we still have a ways to go,” especially compared to other New England states, said Rita Furlow, senior policy analyst with the nonprofit advocacy group Maine Children’s Alliance.
One example of how this affects Maine children is in access to early intervention services, which are intended to support children with developmental delays and disabilities and their families.
In Maine, about one in every 200 children younger than one year is enrolled in early intervention. This rate puts Maine behind the national average of 1.14% and similarly behind every other New England state, a position that Maine has held for about the last 20 years, said Hicks.
In the region between Waldoboro and Rockland, the dearth of early childhood support services is particularly pronounced, creating what Berry called an “early childhood care desert.” Lack of services has repercussions such as forcing parents to drive miles out of their way each day to drop off their children at distant childcare facilities, she said.
Other parents, including the spouses of some attendees, had delayed restarting work after having a child because they could find no other option for childcare.
In Lincoln County specifically, about 9.7% of babies are born substance-affected, a figure that is 2% higher than the state average of 5.7%. Just under 200 children live beneath the federally defined poverty level, and by adolescence, almost one in five middle and high school students have reported considering suicide, said Berry.
Observing the worsening mental and behavioral health among students and her growing frustration with the lack of services available in the region led Berry to organize the Midcoast Community Collaborative in January.
The collaborative was recently awarded a $75,000 grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation to further its efforts to research, convene stakeholders and professionals, and continue to seek solutions to address the early childhood care desert of the Midcoast.
Berry said that the collaborative plans to place particular focus on the “care desert” between Waldoboro and Rockland, with Waldoboro as a model.
The data in Waldoboro “is really frightening,” said Berry. The town has no central convening location for services like parent support, education, or early childhood-specific benefits, she said, making it difficult for parents to access support.
Berry acknowledged that these statistics can lead educators and other providers to feel “completely overwhelmed.”
Audience members shared feelings of disappointment and frustration after reviewing the data.
Berry also emphasized, however, that the situation was not due to a lack of trying or innovating. Rather, she said, many issues could be improved by improving communication and collaboration among the individuals and organizations caring for Maine’s children.
By uniting early childhood professionals across sectors, Berry said she hoped to create a shared understanding of the needs that exist and begin to develop a new and improved framework for addressing the needs of children and young families in Maine.
“We hope to have a prototype for a better system … that could improve the state of early childhood care,” Berry said.
“We could bring each other down, or we could get to work,” said Munger.
Through their collaborations on Nov. 2, attendees discussed ways to improve the current landscape of early childhood care, drafting models for more productive ways in which they hope different sectors can work together to support children.
Berry hopes that these ideas will continue to develop as the collaborative continues to meet and work together in the coming months. Further convenings will involve parents and other stakeholders.
For more information, find the MidCoast Community Collaborative on Facebook.