Mississippi DHS: Child Abuse and Neglect Caseloads at “Beyond Danger!” Levels

Documents obtained as part of the child welfare reform lawsuit Olivia Y. v. Barbour show that Mississippi’s Department of Human Services (DHS), Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS), is allowing average caseloads of 48 cases per caseworker across the state to place thousands of children at risk of serious harm. The state’s own category for children whose workers carry such high caseloads is listed as “BEYOND DANGER!”

The document, entitled “MDHS-Division of Family and Children’s Services, Workload Information,” lists five categories for caseloads that move from OPTIMUM (12 cases per worker) to ACCEPTABLE (18 cases per worker) toMARGINAL (25 cases per worker) to DANGER! (31 cases per Worker) to the last category BEYOND DANGER! (40 cases per Worker).

Just yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Tom S. Lee ruled that Olivia Y. v. Barbour should proceed as a class action, saying that the lawsuit’s allegations about DFCS “staffing, policies and practices, . . . if proven, could readily be found to place every child in DHS custody at substantial risk of harm.” There are approximately 3,000 foster children in Mississippi now covered by the lawsuit.

“This document, in addition to others we are uncovering, proves that state officials are aware of the danger to children in DHS care, but are not acting to protect them” said Eric Thompson, lead attorney at Children’s Rights. “It is clear that significant reform of DHS is necessary to protect the rights of these children. That’s what we are asking the judge to order when the case goes to trial.”

The document, representing DHS staffing data as of September 26, 2004, also reveals the following:

  • Region 6S (Hancock, Harrison, Jackson Counties), with an average caseload of 81 cases per worker is at twice the “Beyond Danger!” caseload level.
  • Regions 7 (Hinds, Warren Counties), 6N (Covington, Forrest, George, Greene, Jones, Lamar, Pearl River, Perry, Stone Counties), 5 (Adams, Amite, Clairborne, Copiah, Franklin, Jefferson Davis, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lincoln, Marion, Pike, Simpson, Walthall, Wilkinson Counties), and 2 (E. & W. Bolivar, Coahoma, Grenada, Humphreys, Quitman, Sunflower, Tallahatchie, Washington, Yalobusha Counties), are all also well above the “Beyond Danger!” caseload level.
  • All the remaining Regions are well above the “Danger!” caseload level (31+).
  • Statewide, there are only 282 authorized social worker positions (PINS), of which 28 are vacant. The 28 vacancies would need to be filled and more than 22 additional authorized work positions would need to be added just to bring average caseloads down below the “Beyond Danger!” staffing level to the “Danger!” level (31+).
  • Statewide, more than 110 social worker positions would need to be added (and 28 vacancies filled) to bring average caseloads down below the “Danger!” staffing level to the “Marginal” level (25+).
  • Instead of adding positions to DHS, Mississippi has been eliminating them. In June 2002, DFCS had 475 authorized social worker positions (now 282), 323 of which were filled (now 254). See MDHS, DFCS, Child and Family Services Review Statewide Self Assessment, December 2003 (www.mdhs.state.ms.us/links.html)

“In the face of this documented failure, past and present, it is inevitable that foster children will continue to be harmed while in the custody of DHS” said Thompson. “We have had to turn to the courts to hold the state accountable for how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.”

Plaintiffs in the Olivia Y. v Barbour lawsuit are obtaining tens of thousands of documents from DHS in the case and are taking depositions of DHS administrators and caseworkers. Fact-finding should be completed by October 13, 2005, with a trial expected in February 2006.

The Olivia Y. v. Barbour lawsuit was filed by Children’s Rights, along with local co-counsel in Jackson, Mississippi, including Wayne Drinkwater and Melody McAnally of Bradley Arant Rose & White, LLP, and Stephen Leech, Esq. Also co-counsel are John Lang
and Chris Carbone of Loeb & Loeb, LLP, with offices in New York and Nashville.

MEDIA CONTACTS:
Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210