Mississippi Still Unable to Track Foster Kids’ Safety Nearly Three Years into Reform Effort

JACKSON, MS — Nearly three years into a massive court-ordered effort to reform the failing Mississippi child welfare system, a new report by an independent monitor shows that the Mississippi Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) has made little to no progress in improving its care and treatment of the approximately 3,500 abused and neglected children in foster care who depend on it.

According to the report (PDF), issued late Wednesday by the independent child welfare expert appointed by a federal court to evaluate the state’s progress, DFCS continues to fall significantly short in implementing a long list of required reforms, including the critical ability to track and monitor children’s safety and well-being while in foster care and adequately train newly-hired caseworkers.

The reforms are mandated by the 2007 settlement of a class action brought by the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights and co-counsel in 2004 on behalf of all children in the custody of the Mississippi child welfare system. That settlement established a five-year timetable for implementing widespread improvements to Mississippi’s child welfare system and dramatically improving results for the state’s vulnerable children. DFCS is now nearly halfway through that timetable with little to show for its efforts.

“Simply put,” writes the federal monitor, “the defendants do not have many of the basic tools in place to manage and promote the reform effort effectively and thereby provide a reasonable assurance the Settlement Agreement’s requirements will be satisfied.”

Children’s Rights advocates say that after giving a new leadership team at DFCS time to correct previous problems in implementing the reforms, it is past time for DFCS to begin producing better results.

“It is inexcusable after all this time that DFCS is still unable to track and evaluate how children and families are faring in the Mississippi child welfare system,” said Shirim Nothenberg, staff attorney for Children’s Rights. “The new leadership team has failed to deliver on its promises and live up to its responsibilities to Mississippi’s abused and neglected children.”

DFCS’s current data tracking system, MACWIS, contains inaccurate and incomplete information–resulting in inaccurate records and forcing staff to use ad hoc methods to make case decisions. For example, the state still has no reliable way to track available foster homes or the ability to match children with appropriate foster parents. According to the report, caseworkers often rely on word-of-mouth to find available homes for children.

The monitor noted, “In the absence of a reliable data system that collects and reports data on a statewide, regional and county basis, assessing progress is inefficient at best, and impossible at worst.” She added that this lack of a reliable system presents an “unreasonable risk of harm to children” in foster care.

Additionally, DFCS’s efforts to appropriately train its new workforce have fallen dismally short. While officials have done a great deal of work hiring a significant number of new staff over the last two years, the report notes that there is no evidence supervisors have been given a clear policy on what tasks a newly-hired caseworker is able to do prior to completing the required training. This has resulted in untrained workers conducting visits by themselves, performing clinical case-related work and investigating abuse allegations.

Children’s Rights already negotiated a corrective action, or “bridge,” plan with DFCS and the independent monitor earlier this year after it was clear the state was not meeting requirements of the settlement agreement and could not produce data in a number of critical areas by the end of this monitoring period. An additional report on the state’s progress with respect to the bridge plan is expected later this month.

The class action, known as Olivia Y. v. Barbour, charged Mississippi with failing to provide legally required care and protection to thousands of abused and neglected children in state custody, and denying them opportunities to be placed in safe, stable, permanent homes through either reunification with their parents or adoption. Longstanding problems cited in the lawsuit included dangerously overburdened and untrained caseworkers, a shortage of foster homes, and widespread failure to provide basic health care services.

Counsel for the class of child plaintiffs includes Children’s Rights; Wayne Drinkwater, Bradley Arant Rose & WhiteLLP, Jackson, Miss.; John Lang, attorney at law of New York, NY; and John Piskora, Loeb & Loeb LLP, New York,NY.

More information about Children’s Rights campaign to reform the child welfare system of Mississippi, including the full text of today’s report and an archive of documents related to the class action, can be found at www.childrensrights.org/mississippi.