Modified Settlement Agreement Renews Push to Reform Mississippi’s Troubled Foster Care System

(New York, NY) — More than four years after Children’s Rights’ legal campaign on behalf of Mississippi’s foster children compelled the state to agree to widespread reforms of its child welfare system, the national advocacy group and state officials today filed a modified settlement agreement. The agreement contains an action plan to addresses the state’s consistent failure to meet court-ordered performance standards.

“Mississippi failed to deliver progress the first time around, but with the new commitment in the updated agreement the state’s obligation to finally fulfill its promises is even stronger,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, Founder and Executive Director of Children’s Rights. “The magnitude of the state’s noncompliance has left thousands of children in as much danger as they were when Children’s Rights filed its lawsuit eight years ago.”

In May 2011, a federal judge found that Mississippi had not made substantial progress in meeting requirements of the original settlement, and ordered Children’s Rights and the state’s Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) to negotiate modifications in order to address the slow pace of reform.

The modified settlement agreement prioritizes immediate steps DFCS is required to take in the next 12 months to lay the groundwork for lasting reform, such as increasing salaries and hiring trainers and more workers in certain counties with severe staffing issues, as well as taking important steps to recruit more foster families.

Beyond the first year, the agreement lays out implementation phases for a set of comprehensive changes in many areas where DFCS has demonstrated poor performance. The modified plan requires DFCS to better protect children from maltreatment in foster care, improve abuse investigations, and place kids in permanent homes as quickly as possible, rather than shuffling them among multiple homes and institutions. The agency must also provide timely health-care services to the children in its custody.

To tackle the agency’s history of employing an understaffed and under-qualified workforce, DFCS must maintain caseloads not exceeding 14 per foster care worker, and provide new caseworkers with a minimum of 270 hours of pre-service training, and increase the education and experience standards for newly hired or promoted supervisors.

“State officials have yet to make any substantial improvements to their dysfunctional foster care system,” said Lowry. “Children’s Rights is not giving up. We will make sure this plan is enforced and that the agency protects the children of Mississippi.”

The class action, known as Olivia Y. v. Barbour, charged Mississippi with failing to provide legally required care and protection to the approximately 3,500 abused and neglected children in state custody, and denying them safe, stable, permanent homes. Longstanding problems cited in the lawsuit, which was filed in 2004, included dangerously high caseloads, untrained caseworkers, a shortage of foster homes, and a widespread failure to provide basic health care services.

Counsel for the class of child plaintiffs includes Wayne Drinkwater, Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP, Jackson, Miss.

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