Mississippi Settles Lawsuit, Agrees to Comprehensive Reform of Child Welfare System

NEW YORK, NY — A settlement agreement mandating top-to-bottom reform of Mississippi’s long-failing child welfare system has been reached in the federal class action brought against the state by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights and a team of attorneys from Mississippi and across the country. The settlement, submitted for preliminary court approval, resolves the lawsuit known as Olivia Y. v. Barbour, filed in 2004 on behalf of the approximately 3,500 abused and neglected children in the custody of Mississippi’s Department of Human Services (DHS).

The court-enforceable agreement requires DHS to better protect children from further maltreatment in foster care and to place them in permanent homes as quickly as possible, rather than shuffling them among multiple homes and institutions. The agency must also reduce its workers’ caseloads, increase the frequency of caseworker visits to children in foster care, develop new services, increase reimbursement rates for foster parents, and provide timely health-care services to the children in its custody. The reforms are to be implemented over a period of five years.

“After decades of maintaining a system widely known to place abused and neglected children in further danger, Mississippi has finally made a legally enforceable commitment to fix it,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, founder and executive director of Children’s Rights. “The road to reform will be long, but Children’s Rights will remain vigilant as long as necessary to hold the state accountable for its promises to implement a constitutionally adequate system.”

Among the specific requirements of today’s agreement are:

  • Providing foster children with required medical and mental health screenings, assessments, and care;
  • Providing foster children with at least two in-person caseworker visits per month to monitor their safety and well-being;
  • Licensing all foster family homes, including kinship care homes;
  • Increasing foster care reimbursement rates to reflect the actual costs of caring for foster children;
  • Limiting caseloads to 14 cases per worker;
  • Appointing an independent court monitor to ensure the timely implementation of reforms.

The Council on Accreditation, an independent organization that establishes national accreditation standards for human services, will be involved in the reform process working with the state to help it achieve the specific goals of the plan.

A hearing for final approval of today’s settlement is scheduled for January 4.

“This reform plan calls for no less than a complete overhaul of a chronically neglected agency,” said Eric Thompson, Children’s Rights senior staff attorney and lead counsel on the case. “It is a major victory for thousands of abused and neglected children in Mississippi, who will now have a much better chance of receiving the care and protection they deserve and desperately need.”

The Olivia Y. class action charged Mississippi with failing to provide legally required care and protection to thousands of abused and neglected children in state custody while also denying them opportunities to be placed in permanent, loving homes. Longstanding problems cited in the suit include dangerously overburdened and untrained caseworkers, a shortage of safe foster homes, and widespread failure to provide basic health-care services.

In a partial settlement of the case approved by the court in May, Governor Haley Barbour and Attorney General Jim Hood did not dispute that the state had violated children’s constitutional rights, and agreed to work with Children’s Rights and outside experts to determine what reforms would be required to adequately protect children in the state’s care.

“This is a great day for Mississippi’s abused and neglected children, and for the people of Mississippi, who will soon have a child welfare system that treats our children legally and humanely,” said Wayne Drinkwater, a partner at Bradley Arant Rose & White in Jackson, MS.

Plaintiffs’ counsel on the case includes Children’s Rights; Wayne Drinkwater and Melody McAnally of Bradley Arant Rose & White; Stephen Leech, attorney at law of Jackson, MS; and John Lang, John Piskora, and Christian D. Carbone of Loeb & Loeb LLP of New York, NY.

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