Children’s Rights, a national advocacy organization, and local Mississippi counsel, along with lawyers for the state of Mississippi, are submitting today for preliminary court approval a settlement agreement reached to reform the state’s child welfare system and resolve a federal class action lawsuit, which was scheduled for trial beginning May 7.
Children’s Rights and local Mississippi counsel filed the federal suit in 2004 on behalf of approximately 3,500 foster children in Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS) custody. The May trial would have determined whether the constitutional rights of the children had been violated. In the settlement agreement, Governor Haley Barbour and Attorney General Jim Hood did not dispute that children’s constitutional rights were violated, and agreed that the case should move immediately into the remedial stage to determine the relief required to protect children in the state’s care.
The agreement provides that during the next six months Mississippi will work with outside experts and Children’s Rights to create a detailed plan to reform the system. If the plaintiffs agree that the plan is adequate, it will be submitted to the court to become a binding court order. If plaintiffs determine that the plan is insufficient to reform the system, the district court will decide what relief should be granted after a hearing scheduled to begin on December 3.
“Now that Mississippi has stopped defending the failures of its child welfare system, it’s time for the state to take the urgently needed steps to reform the system so that it will provide for and protect the children entrusted into state custody,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, founder and executive director of Children’s Rights.
A hearing for approval of the settlement is scheduled for May 17.
The suit charges Mississippi with failing to provide legally required safety, protection and basic health care services to thousands of abused and neglected children in state custody, while denying them the opportunity for a permanent, loving home. Longstanding problems identified in the suit include dangerously overburdened and untrained caseworkers, a shortage of safe foster homes and a lack of basic health services.
“Mississippi’s foster children have been without protection and care for far too long,” said Eric Thompson, lead counsel on the case and senior staff attorney at Children’s Rights. “Reforms should now be swiftly put in place, before another child is harmed.”
“The decision by the state not to contest the unconstitutionality of its system will allow the court to implement an effective remedial plan for Mississippi’s abused and neglected children. This is a great day for the children, and for the people of Mississippi, who will soon have a child welfare system that treats our children legally and humanely,” said Wayne Drinkwater, a partner at Bradley Arant Rose & White in Jackson, Mississippi.
Plaintiffs’ counsel on the case include Children’s Rights; Wayne Drinkwater and Melody McAnally, Bradley Arant Rose & White LLP, Jackson, MS; Stephen Leech, Attorney at Law, Jackson, MS; John Lang, John Piskora and Christian D. Carbone, Loeb & Loeb LLP, New York, NY.
Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210