Immediate Judgment Called for in Mississippi Foster Care Reform Lawsuit

Children’s Rights and Mississippi co-counsel filed for summary judgment this week on behalf of plaintiff children in the case of Olivia Y. v. Barbour, asserting that the facts admitted to by the state demonstrate that Mississippi has unconstitutionally failed to protect children that depend on the state for their basic needs and safety. Plaintiffs have urged the court to rule that the facts are so well established that a trial is not even necessary.

The federal suit filed in March of 2004, has been certified as a class action on behalf of over 3,000 children in foster care custody statewide and is scheduled for trial August 7, 2006. The defendants are Governor Haley Barbour, the Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS) Executive Director Don Taylor, and the Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) Director Rickie Felder.

“Mississippi’s own expert, along with the defendants’ sworn testimony and agency records, conclusively establish that the state has knowingly left children in its care at grave risk of abuse and neglect for years,” said Eric Thompson, senior staff attorney at Children’s Rights. “Since the state has already admitted to the problems outlined in the lawsuit, the Court can act now with a prompt judgment and immediately turn to fashioning the remedial order needed to protect Mississippi’s children.”

Defendants’ own expert findings include:

  • DFCS is under-staffed at all levels, with caseloads averaging 44 cases per worker statewide, three times professional standards;
  • There is limited or no training for caseworkers and supervisors; and
  • A lack of resources hampers the delivery of services to children and families, most notably for placements.

The state has been on notice for years of these deficiencies and the risks they pose to children. Two former DFCSdirectors tried to sound the alarm without success:

  • Sue Perry, days after tendering her resignation in May 2002 for lack of state support, wrote to then Governor Musgrove that DFCS “has been severely understaffed and underfunded for years . . . .The caseloads are impossible and the children are at risk.”
  • Billy Mangold, in a budget request to Defendant Don Taylor in June 2004, before he was asked to resign, stated: “The danger/risk level to our children increases dramatically as the caseloads continue to increase and our staffing level stays the same or decreases … ”

“Defendants’ own case reviews acknowledge that children in DHS custody are maltreated at more than five times the rate set by the federal government as the allowable norm for state child welfare systems, and that these children are denied basic care and treatment necessary to keep them from deteriorating while in state custody,” said Wayne Drinkwater, partner at Bradley, Arant in Jackson, Miss. “It’s long past time for Mississippi to meet its legal and moral obligations to protect the abused and neglected children in its care.”

Counsel on the case include Children’s Rights; Wayne Drinkwater and Melody McAnally, Bradley Arant Rose & WhiteLLP, Jackson, MS; Stephen Leech, Attorney at Law, Jackson, MS; John Lang and John Piskora and Christian D. Carbone, Loeb & Loeb LLP, New York, NY.

Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210