Mississippi Facing Loss of Control Over Its Child Welfare System

Mississippi State Capitol Building. Photo by 123RF.

Plaintiffs involved in a class-action lawsuit of Mississippi’s child welfare system are asking for the federal courts to put a receiver in charge after a dismal recent report on progress under the current settlement.

The state was originally sued by the nonprofit Children’s Rights in 2004 – the case has since been transferred to another nonprofit litigator, A Better Childhood (ABC) – which documented the fact that children taken into foster care were placed in substandard, at-times dangerous foster homes. Meanwhile, thousands of allegations of neglect and abuse went uninvestigated.

The state negotiated a settlement in the case in 2008, and among the many agreed-upon changes to the system were an investment in hiring and training more caseworkers and better screening of maltreatment allegations. Since the year of that original settlement, the number of youth in Mississippi foster care has risen from 3,292 to 5,389 in 2018.

The organization filed a contempt motion against Mississippi in 2015 for failing to comply with the agreement. The state admitted noncompliance, and in 2017 split its Department of Child Protection Services (MDCPS) into a standalone agency.

ABC, in a statement released yesterday, said it has asked for federal court receivership over the MDCPS after “a report last week by the neutral court monitor that documented a massive lack of compliance with the requirements of a federal court order setting out requirements for the operation of the system,” according to a press release. More than a decade after its original settlement, the report found the state out of compliance with two-thirds of its 113 court-ordered obligations.

“The children of Mississippi have waited more than ten years to receive the benefits of a constitutional child welfare system,” said Marcia Lowry, lead counsel for plaintiffs, in the statement. “Ten years is more than enough time. The state is doing no more than making the same promises it has been making all along, and never living up to them.”

MDCPS Commissioner Jess Dickinson, in a statement issued to The Chronicle of Social Change, said the current leadership at the agency inherited a major deficit that stymied efforts to meet the demands of the consent decree.

“As everyone except plaintiffs’ counsel has acknowledged, when we began this administration in late 2017, MDCPS faced a serious financial crisis,” Dickinson said. “But over the past year and a half, my excellent staff and I have worked hard to address and overcome that crisis, and today, with the additional funding we will receive beginning in July 2019, we plan to move MDCPS forward as far as reasonably possible with the funding available to us.”

ABC has disputed Dickinson’s claims that the agency lacks the resources to make good on its agreements, and in December filed a motion arguing that, if anything, a recent decline in foster youth have made some of the obligations less expensive to meet.

“Any positive changes that have taken place since the administrations have changed have been the result of groundwork that had been laid before,” said ABC Executive Director Marcia Robinson Lowry. “The fact is that Commissioner Dickinson, with the knowledge of the governor, has gutted the management team in place at Mississippi Department of Human Service, which knows very little about what is actually happening to children in foster care in Mississippi. The level of back-sliding is very tragic for the children of Mississippi. Federal court action is these children’s only hope.”

Note: This article was updated on June 21. 

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1210 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.