Maine’s future rests on how well we invest in our children

The following testimony was submitted by the Maine Children’s Alliance:

Testimony of Rita Furlow, Senior Policy Analyst
Maine Children’s Alliance
Before the Joint Standing Committee on
Appropriations and Financial Affairs
Biennial Budget
March 6, 2015

Good afternoon, Senators Hamper and Brakey, Representatives Rotundo and Gattine, and members of the Joint Standing Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs and Health and Human Services, my name is Rita Furlow.  I am a Senior Policy Analyst at the Maine Children’s Alliance, and I am here today to support budget items that would impact some of our youngest children in Maine, including Head Start, Maine Families/Home Visiting, and Maine’s child care subsidy and support system.  The Maine Children’s Alliance is a statewide non-partisan, non-profit research and advocacy organization whose mission is to promote sound public policies to improve the lives of children, youth, and families in Maine.

Maine’s future rests on how well we invest in our children.  We know that the learning and development that occurs later in life is based on the foundation created in the early years.  Smart investments made in early childhood will pay off not only for children and families, but for taxpayers, as well.

I know you have heard many times that the because of brain development, the early years of a child’s life are critical to their future cognitive, health, and social/emotional development.  The brain has the most plasticity — or capacity for change — in the first few years of life, which means it is a time of both great opportunity and vulnerability.

Children who grow up in environments that include language-rich, caring relationships with responsive parents and caregivers will be off to good start.  Brain scientists believe that children’s brains require something call “serve and return.”  When an infant or young child gestures or cries and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or touch, neural connections are built and strengthened in the brain that support the development of communication and social skills.

What happens when children do not receive the responses they need from caregivers?  Imagine the brain of a young child living in challenging relational circumstances where family members are experiencing domestic violence or a major physical or mental health issue.  The resulting and persistent absence of “serve and return” interactions can be detrimental for healthy development in two ways: first, the brain does not receive the positive stimulation it needs; second, the body’s stress response is activated, flooding the developing brain with potentially harmful stress hormones.  When these experiences are so severe that the body’s stress response causes “toxic stress” in children, the wiring in the brain — the neural pathways — are actually changed, negatively and tragically.

Yet we know that there are things we can do to improve the capability of adult caregivers to strengthen their relationships with children.  By investing in early childhood programs such as Head Start, Maine Families/Home Visiting, and quality child care that support children and their parents, we can greatly improve outcomes, for children and their families.

Maine Families/Home Visiting has been shown to prevent child abuse and neglect and increase safety in homes where children are at risk due to substance abuse or family violence.   As you have heard, Maine’s home visiting program, which works with new parents to assist them in their parenting skills, will experience a loss of $9 million dollars in federal funding.  This will result in a devastating 75% cut to this crucial program for young children and families.  We ask this committee to consider a major increase in state funding in order to continue the vital services Maine Families provides to young children and their families.

The Head Start program provides early care and education to the poorest children in Maine.  Head Start also enhances children’s health, nutrition, and mental health while supporting and educating their parents.  Providing funding for Head Start is a good investment for Maine’s most vulnerable children.  Unfortunately, only 30% of eligible children are served by the Head Start or Early Head Start program in Maine.  We appreciate that this program has continued to receive level funding in this budget, but ask that you consider increasing the funding due to the large number of children who cannot access Head Start because of a lack of funding.

This budget also supports the child care system in Maine by providing low-income parents with support through the child care subsidy system, enabling them to be employed while helping to pay for child care.  Maine’s support of child care allows the state to receive millions of dollars in federal matching funds, which also supports the entire child care system.  The inspection and licensing of child care facilities throughout the state is supported with these funds, along with training and professional development to assist all child care providers.  Yet because of a lack of state funding, Maine has not received the full amount of federal funds that are available to support child care in Maine.  We urge you to increase this investment to better support quality child care in Maine.

Trying to change behavior or build new skills on a shaky foundation is far more costly and less effective than ensuring strong foundations from the beginning.  We ask you to invest in these programs now to make a difference in the long-term, both for the children and for Maine’s economic future.

Finally, we have grave concerns about proposals that cut reimbursements to mental health providers for children.  These professionals provide desperately needed services for vulnerable children and their families.  We are particularly concerned about cuts that would discourage child psychiatrists from serving low-income children in Maine.  Many parents are on waiting lists to see child psychiatrists or must travel long distances for appointments.  Maine has a very limited number of these highly skilled professionals.  While some mental health conditions may be managed by pediatricians or primary care doctors, children with complex conditions need to be seen by child psychiatrists who have specialized training in children’s mental health.

Thank you for your consideration.


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