Court Monitor Report: State must immediately accelerate the pace of reform
(New York, NY) —- A new report by the court-appointed monitor shows that the Mississippi Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is struggling to ensure the basic safety of abused and neglected children in state care — despite a modified settlement agreement filed six months ago addressing the state’s consistent failure to improve system-wide. The reform efforts were spurred by Children’s Rights when the national advocacy group filed a class action suit against the state in 2004.
“The state already has been rebuked sharply for failing in its obligation to improve the child welfare system, so it is alarming that the state continues to approach reform efforts with a lack of urgency,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, founder and executive director of Children’s Rights.
In a progress report focused on the last six months of 2012, the monitor notes that “persistent staffing shortages, a woefully inadequate information management system, and, at various points, the absence of a complete and permanent executive leadership team” continue to hamper the pace of reform at DFCS.
According to the most recent federal data, the statewide rate of maltreatment in Mississippi foster care stands at 1.59, which is five times the national standard. The report says this rate could be even higher due to the poor quality of investigations.
The monitor notes that the prolonged effort to replace the head of the child welfare system is emblematic of the agency’s lax approach toward urgent initiatives. The modified settlement agreement requires DFCS to maintain a deputy administrator, a person with expertise in child welfare whose sole responsibility is overseeing the agency. This critical position has remained vacant for more than six months, and will remain vacant until at least April 1, 2013.
The report describes numerous deficiencies with Mississippi’s ability to provide accurate and timely data on agency performance. Most critically, five years after the court approved the settlement agreement, DFCS still cannot produce reliable reports on caseworker workloads, which would provide management with the basic information it needs to ensure adequate hiring.
“The state’s failure to report accurate data contributes to the systemic issues of understaffing and high caseloads, both of which compromise the safety and well-being of children in DFCS custody,” said Lowry. “After five years of the same problems, Mississippi must immediately accelerate the pace of reform.”
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. 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 can be found at the Mississippi Class Actions Page.