PORTLAND (WGME) -- A new study says Maine's rate of child abuse and neglect is the worst in the nation and more than twice the national average.
According to the report, more than 4,200 children in the state experienced substantial mistreatment by their parents in 2021, the most recent year available.
The Maine Children's Alliance says the majority of cases in Maine are neglect.
According to the latest numbers, more than 4,200 kids were abused or neglected, with another 34,000 living in poverty, which can lead to child abuse and neglect.
"If you look at the primary risk factors for child abuse and neglect in the state, it's substance use disorder, alcohol use, domestic violence," Melissa Hackett from the Maine Children’s Alliance said.
Every year, the Maine KIDS COUNT Data Book assesses the well-being of Maine's nearly 250,000 children.
What this year's study found is children are abused and neglected at a rate more than twice the national average, making it the worst in the nation for the maltreatment of children, including a 30 percent increase between 2017 and 2021.
"This is not where we want to be as a state," Hackett said.
Hackett says first and foremost, Maine needs more services and support to help parents at risk of abusing or neglecting their children.
"In our conversations with families, we really often hear that they can't access services and supports that they need to have that stability in their home," Hackett said. "So when those services aren't as available, and then you layer that with the opioid epidemic, with the COVID-19 pandemic, those create additional stressors for families, and then less resources to meet those challenges."
From the State Office of Child and Family Services to treatment facilities, counseling and parental classes, Maine is understaffed just about everywhere you look.
"I mean, I think what we're looking at is an over-stressed system," Hackett said.
The Maine Children's Alliance says Maine must invest in strategies and programs that will strengthen families and lower the need for child protection intervention.
"We are, right now, working with DHHS to develop a statewide plan for child abuse and neglect prevention," Hackett said.
One idea is to invest in peer support and paraprofessionals, positions that don't require a license but can be just as useful as a mentor for parents and as a watchdog protecting children from abuse and neglect.
The Maine Children’s Alliance believes giving parents what they need will reduce the harm being done to their children.
"We are developing a new, comprehensive plan to keep children safe by keeping families strong," Governor Janet Mills said.
That includes making sure kids have food and safe housing, and parents have job training, education, child care and access to treatment.
The governor and Maine Children's Alliance hope to get this abuse and neglect prevention plan into the hands of lawmakers in the next two weeks.
Maine DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell released the following statement to CBS13:
"Together with partners throughout the state, the Department is strengthening programs and resources that help to prevent child abuse by supporting healthy and thriving families. We look forward to continuing this critical planning and collaboration to support Maine children and families.
The Databook includes a measure of child maltreatment, which is an important indicator of child and family well-being, the functioning of the child welfare system, and the broader social supports available to children and families. Maine law and Department policy approaches maltreatment comprehensively, defining it to include both indicated (low/moderate severity) and substantiated (high severity) findings of abuse or neglect. This helps to ensure that Maine identifies, reports, and responds to child maltreatment. It also contributes to Maine identifying maltreatment at a higher rate than other states, as not all states take this approach. Removing indicated findings would result in a significant reduction in Maine’s maltreatment rate, putting it much closer to the national average."