Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS) documents recently obtained by attorneys for the plaintiffs as part of the child welfare reform lawsuit Olivia Y. v. Barbour reveal that DHS has a backlog of 2,863 child abuse investigations statewide. In addition, DHS caseworkers are not able to respond to child abuse complaints for an average of over three days.
The backlog is documented in a DHS printout summarizing the number of investigations open for more than 30 days as of January 15, 2005. A separate DHS “Child Investigation Timeliness Report” for the month of December 2004 identifies an average initial response time of 76.4 hours and the average number of days until completion as 52 days.DHS policy requires that such investigations be initiated (the alleged child victim be seen) immediately, or no later than within 24 hours, depending on the severity of the reported abuse. DHS policy also requires that child abuse investigations be completed within 15 days.
In DHS Region VI-S (Hancock, Harrison, Jackson Counties), where caseworkers have the highest caseloads in the State, DHS did not respond to abuse reports for over 11 days on average (269.4 hours), by far the worse performance in the State. Region VI-S also accounts for the biggest backlog in investigations open over 30 days (823), and averages the longest time to complete each investigation (130 days or over four months). With an average of 81 cases per caseworker, caseloads in Region VI-S are at twice the level identified by DHS in a previously released document as “Beyond Danger!”
“This new data is alarming and further illustrates the pressing need for DHS reform in order to protect the rights of abused and neglected children,” said Eric Thompson, senior staff attorney at Children’s Rights. “It is unconscionable that immediate action is not being taken by Mississippi State government to respond immediately to these thousands of shelved reports of child abuse.”
“Budget cuts have decimated DHS, with a devastating impact on its ability to protect abused children,” said Stephen Leech, local co-counsel for plaintiffs. “It’s time Mississippi gave priority to its most vulnerable children.”
On March 14, U.S. District Court Judge ruled that Olivia Y. v. Barbour should proceed as a class action. The approximately 3,000 foster children in Mississippi are now covered by the lawsuit. Plaintiffs in the Olivia Y. v. Barbourcase are obtaining thousands of documents from DHS in the case and are taking depositions of DHS administrators and caseworkers. Fact-finding should be completed by October 13, 2005, with a trial expected in February 2006.
Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210