Mississippi Foster Children Continue to Be Harmed, Advocates Ask Court to Act

JACKSON, MISS. – Citing the well-documented and consistent failure of Mississippi’s Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) to improve its deeply dysfunctional foster care system as required by the settlement of a federal class action lawsuit, the national advocacy group Children’s Rights today filed a motion for contempt calling for the federal court to intervene in the state agency’s management.

While DFCS has made some positive changes in the way the agency is structured, today’s motion (PDF) establishes that the magnitude of Mississippi’s noncompliance with the settlement agreement has left thousands of children — many of whom have been in foster care since the lawsuit was first filed in 2004 — in as much danger and at as much risk of harm today as they were six years ago.

Because of these ongoing problems and the failure of DFCS’s leadership to act after nearly three years, Children’s Rights advocates argue that appointing a receiver to take over DFCS’s management of the child welfare system is the only effective way to protect children in foster care from further harm.

“DFCS has been given every opportunity to meet its obligation to improve the treatment of thousands of abused and neglected children in foster care, but after almost three years, children are sadly no better off,” said Shirim Nothenberg, staff attorney for Children’s Rights. “It has become clear that DCFS’s current leadership is simply not capable of getting these reforms off the ground, so we are asking the court to appoint someone who can and will implement the required improvements.”

Today’s motion cites recent reports, issued by the independent monitor appointed by the court to track the reform effort, showing several ongoing failures at DFCS:

  • DFCS still places far too many children in unlicensed foster homes. More than 350 children–over 10 percent of all children in foster care–are currently living in unlicensed, unregulated foster homes, where they are at risk of suffering further abuse.
  • DFCS subjects children in foster care to frequent, unpredictable, and unexplained moves. Because of a significant lack of available and appropriate homes for children in foster care, DFCS has shuffled over 20 percent of kids through at least five different homes each.
  • DFCS has failed to create a reliable system for tracking the children in its custody. Without a dependable computer information or quality assurance system, DFCS is forced to work with inaccurate and incomplete information, and has no reliable way to track how children are faring while in state custody.
  • DFCS’s workforce continues to be overburdened with enormous caseloads and inadequately trained.DFCS admits that many caseworkers are carrying workloads more than double what they can manage. Additionally, there is such a lack of training that newly-hired workers are asked to conduct visits with children and investigate abuse allegations without adequate training.

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, and denying them safe, stable, permanent homes. Longstanding problems cited in the lawsuit 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 Children’s Rights; Wayne Drinkwater, Bradley Arant Boult CummingsLLP, Jackson, Miss.; John Lang, Attorney at Law, New York, NY; and Christian Carbone and John Piskora, Loeb & Loeb LLP, New York, NY.

More information about Children’s Rights’ campaign to reform the child welfare system in Mississippi, including the full text of today’s motion for contempt and an archive of documents related to the class action, can be found a at www.childrensrights.org/mississippi.