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After Slow Start, Court-Ordered Child Welfare Reforms Underway in Mississippi

JACKSON, MS — The Mississippi Department of Family and Children’s Services ended the first period of a massive court-ordered effort to reform its child welfare system having reached few of the required first-year benchmarks for improvement, according to a new report issued late Friday by a court-appointed monitor — but the agency is now well-positioned to begin making better progress under a strong new leadership team, the report says.

The (PDF), authored by the independent child welfare expert appointed by the court to evaluate the reform effort, says DFCS will need to accelerate and intensify its efforts to implement the required reforms under the five-year timetable established by the 2007 settlement of the class action known as Olivia Y. v. Barbour, brought by Children’s Rights and co-counsel in 2004 on behalf of the approximately 3,500 abused and neglected children who depend on the agency for protection and care.

According the monitor, “the efforts and motivation of [DFCS’s] promising leadership team, coupled with the strengths and talents of their staff, should result in substantial progress during Period 2 if this reform effort is adequately resourced and appropriately managed.”

Under the settlement, negotiated in November 2007 by Children’s Rights and state officials and approved in January 2008 by the federal judge presiding over the class action, each year of the reform effort has its own implementation plan. Most of the requirements of the first-year implementation plan were aimed at reorganizing and strengthening the structure and workforce of DFCS – including its senior management team — to enable the agency to effectively implement the reforms and provide better protection, care, and services to the children and families dependent upon it.

Delays in fulfilling the requirement to appoint a qualified new leadership team — a prerequisite for implementing all of the other reforms — prevented DFCS from completing most of the other first-year requirements, including assessments of its internal processes, external service providers, and delivery of vital child welfare services to identify problems that will need to be addressed as the reform effort continues.

Despite those delays, however, the agency has begun making significant progress following the July 2008 appointment of Lori Woodruff as deputy director of family and children’s services — and a significant budget increase that enabled DFCS to expand its staff with a net increase of 115 child welfare workers and 12 supervisors. The monitor and Children’s Rights officials say they are optimistic that the new leadership team will be able to pick up the pace of reform and produce steadily better results.

“It took much longer than we would have liked to hire the new management team, but bringing in good people was absolutely necessary to establish a strong foundation for the entire reform effort,” said Shirim Nothenberg, staff attorney for Children’s Rights.

In addition to hiring new leadership and expanding its child welfare workforce, DFCS underwent major changes in its organizational structure to streamline its operations, eliminate barriers to reform, and increase accountability. The monitor also credits DFCS with hiring a national expert to develop a new model of child welfare practice and establishing new training and quality assurance units necessary to prepare its staff for the challenges they will face in the field and continuously evaluate and improve the results of the agency’s work for vulnerable children and families.

But all of these projects — and the required assessments of DFCS’s processes, practices, and services — remain uncompleted and will now be built into the implementation plan for the second period of the reform effort.

“The next period of the reform effort is critical,” Nothenberg said. “Having addressed its leadership issues, DFCS will have to work very hard to really get these reforms off the ground and start producing better results for Mississippi’s children and families, and they will need the full support of the state legislature to do so. Children’s Rights will continue to work with them — and to take whatever action is necessary to keep the reforms on track.”

As DFCS enters the second period of the reform effort, the monitor cites several “formidable challenges” that the agency must overcome:

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, 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 safe foster homes, and widespread failure to provide basic health care services.

Counsel for the class of child plaintiffs includes Children’s Rights; Wayne Drinkwater and Melody McAnally of Bradley Rose Arant & White of Jackson, MS; 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.

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 Olivia Y. class action, can be found at www.childrensrights.org/mississippi.