By Ramona du Houx
The Office of the Maine Attorney General has a myriad of official duties, all of which protect the public interest and public rights of Maine citizens. The list of operations seems endless.
Maine Attorney General Steve Rowe with actress Victoria Rowell at the Freedom Trail opening in Portland, Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx
“We handle a diverse workload, including general litigation, homicide and drug trafficking prosecution, financial crimes prosecution, child protection, child support, consumer and antitrust law, education law, healthcare law, and environmental law. We are the state’s law firm and we advise and represent all branches of government on legal matters,” said Attorney General Steve Rowe. “We bring lawsuits on behalf of the state and defend the state and its officers in state and federal courts.”
If that’s not enough for the AG to do, Rowe has been accomplishing much more. When he became AG, he reorganized the office with staff input and streamlined services for efficiency and savings. “We have some of the smartest, most dedicated public servants I’ve ever met,” said Rowe. He also set new priorities for the Office of Attorney General.
“Our work is not just about initiating or defending lawsuits or providing legal services to state agencies. It’s also about protecting the legal rights of Maine people, particularly when those rights relate to people’s health, safety and welfare. As Maine’s Attorney General, I have identified certain priorities for my office. These include protection of children and seniors, domestic violence prevention, civil rights education and enforcement, consumer protection, and access to affordable healthcare,” said Rowe. “I firmly believe that this office has a special duty to protect the public rights of our most vulnerable citizens — particularly children, seniors, and others who may be targets of abuse, neglect, or unfair discrimination. When basic rights of health, safety and welfare are not protected, other rights of Maine citizenship cannot be enjoyed and justice is not complete.”
Attorney General Rowe holds a law degree from the University of Maine School of Law, a master’s degree in business administration, and a bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point. He served in Maine’s House of Representatives for eight years, serving as Speaker in his final term. He has chaired the National Association of Attorneys General Committee on Prescription Drug Pricing. He currently is co-chair of the association’s Underage Drinking Committee. He has been heralded by other state attorneys general as leading initiatives that have reduced youth exposure to alcohol marketing.
“Through our actions, as well as those of allied groups, we have achieved some success in changing industry marketing practices,” said Rowe. “These actions should help reduce children’s interest in alcohol and hopefully save lives and futures.”
This accomplishment addresses one of the major obstacles society faces, of changing perceptions of abusive, additive substances. Standing up to these special interests while managing to work with them is a breakthrough. Rowe has a unique way of getting people to work together. As speaker he brought coalitions together to channel monies from the tobacco settlement to health programs.
“When I was speaker in1999, the state received the first funds under the master tobacco settlement agreement. The Legislature enacted legislation to protect the funds and dedicate them to a number of health-related areas to include substance abuse prevention, smoking cessation, childcare, home visiting, and prescription drugs for seniors. I was pleased that we dedicated that money largely to prevention,” said Rowe. “One of the primary reasons for our success with the Fund for a Healthy Maine was the collaboration among various people and agencies both inside and outside of state government. I am very proud that Maine still leads the nation in the percentage of tobacco settlement funds used for health purposes. Over the past eight years we have seen a 60 percent reduction in smoking rates among teens. I believe that, with additional resources, it is possible to replicate that kind of success with underage drinking.”
Rowe believes that there are “two great evils” in Maine. “One is domestic abuse and the other is substance abuse. They are both devastating to individuals, families, communities, and our state’s economy. In fact, it is estimated that together domestic abuse and substance abuse costs our state more than $2 billion each year. This includes remedial health care, education, and criminal justice costs just to name a few. It also includes lost productivity in the workplace.”
For the past six and a half years, Rowe has been focusing on ways to stop domestic abuse and substance abuse from occurring, using the office as a platform to inform communities on these issues. He’s brought diverse people from across the state together to work on preventive measures. “We use our office to raise awareness about problems and lead the way to find solutions. Creating partnerships is not just a good idea; it is critical in order to effect meaningful change in difficult areas such as domestic abuse and substance abuse,” said Rowe.
Last year with Attorney General Rowe, substance abuse treatment and prevention specialists, district attorneys, police chiefs, school administrators, teachers, parents, students, retailers, and other concerned citizens participated in 28 community forums across the state. Alcohol is associated with the top three causes of death among adolescents: motor vehicle accidents, homicides, and suicides. “Community members came together to discuss underage drinking and to develop a plan of action to change the social norms around the issue and reduce youth demand for and access to alcohol,” said Rowe. “The adolescent brain is different from that of an adult. The regions of the brain that allow brakes to be put on impulse and motivation are not fully developed during the teenage years. Thus, teenagers are more likely than adults to engage in impulsive behaviors that put them at risk of serious injury to themselves or others.”
Underage drinking can result in irreversible brain damage. “Most people don’t appreciate the cumulative damage that alcohol can cause to an adolescent brain. Alcohol use by teenagers can and often does have a serious destructive effect on brain functioning. Sadly, in some cases, the damage is irreversible. I know young people with outgoing personalities who made the honor roll in middle school; yet a few years later they were socially withdrawn and failing academically. The reason for this change was, in almost all cases, regular alcohol use,” said Rowe who emphasized that the earlier a person starts drinking, the greater the risk of dependence. “Statistics tell us that a person who starts drinking at age 15 is four times more likely to become dependent on alcohol than a person who waits until he or she is 21 to start drinking.”
Tobacco and alcohol compliance checks are ongoing. Public service ads warning parents not to serve alcohol to youth have been produced and broadcasted. The root causes of these addictive tendencies were also broached in different ways, being a part of larger issues. A breakthrough forum to engage men in discussions about violence against women was held. And a new campaign to help victims of domestic abuse was launched.
The Call to Men conference brought 85 men from across the state together to examine the root causes of men’s violence against women. The men were selected by domestic violence projects and sexual assault centers. Participants took away from the successful all-day conference new ideas to integrate into their communities. “Unfortunately, many young boys in Maine do not always see healthy adult relationships in their homes. They need positive adult role models and we need more men to step up and assume mentoring roles,” said Rowe.
The Cut Out Domestic Violence campaign involved providing hair salon professionals with resource and referral information so that they might assist clients who are victims of domestic violence. Often women talk more freely about abuse with their hair stylist, so the AG’s office, working with the Maine Coalition Against Domestic Violence and local projects, held trainings for salon professionals and provided them with flyers and nail files with resource and referral information.
These are just a few measures that have been introduced since Rowe became AG that address the core reasons why the state deals largely in remediation. Rowe has shown that interaction with communities focusing on these problems can reduce them. He believes that prevention and early intervention measures are keys to help build a healthier society and a healthier economy.
The Attorney General is passionate about the rights of all Maine citizens and has put a special emphasis on the rights of children. He understands that the early years of life are critical in shaping a child’s future learning and development.
“Government cannot guarantee that every child will succeed, but it can and should guarantee that every child has the opportunity to succeed. The key to that opportunity is a healthy start,” said Rowe. “Ninety percent of structural brain development occurs before age five. This means that the foundation for a person’s cognitive, emotional, and social development is largely set by kindergarten. To maximize healthy development, young children need nurturing, stable relationships with supportive and responsive adults. They also need positive stimulation, low stress and a sense of safety and security.”
When the lives of children with developmental disabilities are traced back to their earliest years, domestic abuse or substance abuse or both are often found to be present in the home. Parents who were abused often become abusers.
“We would like to think that we live in a society where all children have the opportunity to go as far and as high as their talents and their willingness to work hard will take them. However, for some children — particularly those who did not get a healthy start in life — that is just a hollow dream. These children lack a sturdy cognitive, social and emotional foundation from which to launch. A little boy who watches his dad abuse his mom is three times more likely to abuse his spouse when he grows up. Eighty percent of violent offenders in prisons across the country grew up in homes with domestic abuse,” said Rowe citing national statistics.
Identifying the problems associated with the lack of early childhood development, investigating the issue thoroughly with a lawyer’s insight, asking questions of psychologists, DHS caseworkers, physicians, and other experts in the field, over the years Rowe has built up in-depth knowledge of the problem.
The Attorney General believes that societal attitudes about the value of early childhood development must be changed. He travels around the state talking about the importance of investing in quality early care and education programs.
On November 29–30 Governor Baldacci will be hosting the first state economic summit on early childhood development. Tying Maine’s economy to early childhood development is something Maine’s AG explains like a man on a mission.
“Taking care of our children is not just the right thing to do from a social and moral perspective. It is absolutely essential from an economic perspective. In fact, investing in quality early care and development for children birth to five is one of the very best economic investments we can make. The result is a healthier, more highly educated and more productive workforce. The result is also lower remedial spending and lower taxes.
“Ninety percent of structural brain development occurs before the age of five. Yet, ninety percent of our education spending occurs after age five. Something about that just seems wrong,” said Rowe. “It also seems wrong that, while only about 5 percent of babies are born with impairments that result in learning disorders, more than 15 percent of our students in K-12 have learning disorders that qualify them for special education services. Why the disparity? What is happening on the way to kindergarten? We must ensure that parents have the tools they need to provide healthy homes for newborns and toddlers. We must also ensure that parents have access to quality, affordable childcare.
“As a society, we spend far too much time and money attempting to repair problems that should not have occurred. I often say that our government is invested heavily in the remediation business. I believe that we should shift more of our resources into prevention, most particularly into early childhood development. If we do, we will, in short order, see a reduction in the need for remedial spending. We will also see a healthier, more highly educated and more productive citizenry and a more vibrant economy.”
The AG has worked extensively on issues ranging from the elderly to the environment as well as consumer awareness and protection. These issues deserve special attention in future interviews. The depth of accomplishments that Rowe has achieved for the state is a reflection of his commitment to keep Maine as one community, and his principles.
“A community is more than a group of people who live in the same geographic area. A community is a group of people who care about one another and who support one another. Maine is really one large community. Certainly, our state is a special place because of its natural beauty and distinctive seasons. But the people are what really make our state special. I have lived in other places and I can tell you that there is no place quite like Maine. Maine people are honest, hardworking, caring, and supportive. It doesn’t get any better than that,” said Rowe. “The fundamental purposes of government as set forth in our state Constitution are to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our people and to educate our people. That is what guides me in my service to the state. As a Democrat I believe strongly in the principles of social and economic justice, equality, fairness, and compassion. I believe that the success of our society should be measured, not by how well the most prosperous among us are doing, but rather by how well the least among us are doing. After all, we are all part of the same community.
“It’s often said about Democrats that we are the best hope for many and the only hope for some. I believe that to be true.”
Rowe confirmed that he is planning to run for the office of Governor in 2010. “I have dedicated the past fifteen years of my life to serving the people of Maine. I believe that my service has made a positive difference. I would like nothing more than to continue to serve the people of this great state.”