Independent Monitor: There Are ‘Substantial Shortcomings … That Put Children at a Continuing and Unreasonable Risk of Harm’
(New York, NY)— Representatives from Mississippi’s Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS), national advocacy group Children’s Rights and Jackson law firm Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLPwill take the next 30 days to develop a legally binding plan to address failures in the state’s child welfare reform effort. According to the most recent independent report charting DFCSprogress, the pace of child welfare reform “must be accelerated.”
Children’s Rights and co-counsel filed suit against the state in 2004. The class action, known as Olivia Y. v. Barbour, cited dangerously high caseloads, untrained caseworkers, a shortage of foster homes, and a widespread failure to provide basic health care services. A modified settlement agreement, approved in 2012, contained an action plan to address the state’s consistent failure to meet court-ordered performance standards, but thus far the Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) has met few of those goals.
The monitor was unable to make any findings about performance in approximately one third of the 33 statewide requirements because of concerns about data reliability or completeness. In the 23 areas where performance could be assessed, DFCSonly met or exceeded portions of 10 of the MSArequirements.
“It is deeply concerning that, ten years into this effort, the agency’s capacity issues remain profound and progress has been so limited,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director for Children’s Rights. “This month-long effort is critically needed to jump-start reform.”
As a result of a court order entered almost a year ago, Mississippi has improved its data management practices, and for the first time is able to accurately report on some aspects of its performance. However DFCShas not been able to produce reliable data on caseworker caseloads statewide, a critical safety measure that indicates whether a state has the capacity to effectively supervise and ensure the well-being of all children in its care.
And, while the independent monitor was unable to determine the condition of caseworker workloads, it is clear that some supervisors – the “lynchpin” of the state’s reform – are overstretched. More than 20 percent of supervisors oversee more than 5 caseworkers, in violation of the settlement agreement.
When data is reliable enough to draw conclusions about performance, it reveals some alarming deficiencies. According to the independent monitor, these are “substantial shortcomings in the defendants’ performance that put children at a continuing and unreasonable risk of harm. These findings underscore the need for defendants to act with urgency on identified priorities.”
For example, the state is falling far short when it comes to investigating allegations of maltreatment in care. As of June 30, 2013, only 36 percent of maltreatment investigations were initiated within 24 hours and completed with supervisory approval in 30 days, time periods required by the court order. Such delays put children at risk of ongoing maltreatment while in state care.
The state has also been unable to improve longstanding issues around the handling of investigations of maltreatment in care; the independent monitor noted that the state failed to conduct required quality assurance reviews of more than 100 investigations.
“It is unacceptable that the state’s ability to keep abused and neglected children safe remains so limited,” said Lowry. “These young people deserve nothing less than safe and supportive homes, with caseworkers who are able to meet their needs. If we are unable to agree on a plan during the 30 days, we will be compelled to act. A motion for contempt, while extreme, would be the only remaining option.”