Counsel for the approximately 3,500 foster children in Mississippi will present a settlement agreement for approval today at a hearing before Federal District Court Judge Tom S. Lee, in the child welfare reform lawsuit known as Olivia Y. v. Barbour. Faced with a liability trial scheduled for this month, the state of Mississippi reached a preliminary agreement in April 2007 with national watchdog group Children’s Rights and co-counsel, including local Mississippi attorneys, to overhaul its failing child welfare system. Comments on the settlement submitted to the court by concerned Mississippians detail the urgent need to reform Mississippi’s child welfare system. Originally filed in 2004, the class action lawsuit charges Mississippi with knowingly failing to protect the children in its custody.
“Child welfare professionals, relatives, and foster and adoptive parents, as well as other concerned and knowledgeable citizens from across Mississippi have come forward to express their grave concerns about the foster care system and their strong support for the settlement agreement,” said Eric Thompson, senior staff attorney at Children’s Rights. “This groundswell of local support highlights the risks being posed to kids every day and why reform of the system is needed so urgently.”
In a series of community meetings in Jackson, Hattiesburg, Gulfport, and northern Mississippi, conducted by Children’s Rights and local co-counsel, people came forward to describe the problems they had experienced with the state’s broken child welfare system, and how reform was needed to stop children from continuing to be harmed by that system. The following concerns were shared by numbers of people across the state and submitted to the court:
- MDHS fails to undertake adequate and timely investigations of abuse and neglect reports. One health care professional from the Gulf Coast estimated that doctors at the local hospital contact MDHS about drug-addicted newborns between 10 and 30 times per month, but MDHS responds to only three to five of these reports per month. A community member from northern Mississippi reported that MDHS refuses to investigate reports of abuse or neglect unless those reports are of maltreatment that would constitute a criminal felony.
- MDHS does not ensure children are safe while in foster care. Children are frequently placed with relatives, sometimes out of state, before required background checks of the proposed caretakers have been performed. Foster children are placed in foster homes in numbers well beyond the capacity of the homes. More than one concerned community member from the Gulf Coast reported foster children being housed in dangerously overcrowded FEMA trailers, with one trailer housing approximately10 foster children. Foster children are also moved from inappropriate placement to inappropriate placement. At least one 11-year-old child committed suicide and a teenager was killed in a residential facility after each had experienced multiple failed placements.
- MDHS does not adequately train child welfare employees who labor under unmanageable caseloads. Many state workers are asked to perform tasks, such as investigating reports of sexual abuse or matching children with special needs to therapeutic placements, without necessary knowledge or training. Caseloads in Mississippi currently range from 25 to more than 100 cases per worker, dangerously exceeding the national standard of 12 to 15 cases per worker. Overwhelmed caseworkers reportedly drop children off at shelters for weeks at a time without making any follow-up contact, and merely peer through screen doors at foster children when making required face-to-face visits with the children.
The settlement agreement provides that Mississippi has until October to 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 to bring about the full-scale change needed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the state’s foster children, it will be submitted to the court to become a binding court order. If the plaintiffs determine that the plan is inadequate, the agreement provides for the district court to decide what relief should be granted after a hearing scheduled to begin on December 3.
“Court approval of this settlement agreement will mark a new day for the children of Mississippi, as it will allow the parties to move directly to bringing system-wide reform of the foster care system. This will ensure that MDHSprovides the services, care and protection each foster child in this state deserves,” said Melody McAnally, of the Jackson, Mississippi office of Bradley Arant Rose & White, LLP.
Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210