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Mississippi foster care's slow progress

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Mississippi’s foster care agency is failing to prevent abuse and neglect of children in state custody despite its commitments to do so as part of a long-running federal lawsuit.

A Mississippi toddler named Olivia Y. weighed only 22 pounds when she entered state custody in 2003. Though she was obviously malnourished, she was not given a medical exam. Over the next three months, she was shuffled across five different foster homes. The lawsuit that bears her name was filed in 2004, when she was 3-and-a-half years old, on behalf of the thousands of children in the state foster care system. The state first agreed to a settlement requiring it to make systemic reforms in 2008, but has never fully complied with the terms of that and later settlement agreements.

An independent monitor evaluated the department’s progress toward meeting its commitments in reports released in 2020 and 2021 that were never publicized, which documented about two percent of all children in department custody were subjected to abuse or neglect by their caregivers.

The department acknowledged in June 2021 that it was not capable of achieving its targets and instead agreed to a “rebuilding period," and has been working toward reaching a smaller number of less stringent standards in areas such as worker caseloads and child safety by early 2023.

The number of children in state custody has fallen 33% since 2017, from 5,872 to 3,888 in June 2022.

Among the problems documented in the most recent reports were high rates of abuse and neglect and higher-than-allowable caseloads. In 2019, 87 kids were abused or neglected. In 2020, the figure was 117, nearly six times the agreed-upon rate. The department is supposed to ensure 90% of all caseworkers have a caseload that meets standards allowing them to provide adequate care and oversight. In 2019 and 2020, this figure ranged from 48% to 68%.

According to the reports, adoption is the long-term goal for 39% of kids in state custody, and only 22% who left department care in 2020 were adopted. For half of kids in state custody, the long-term goal is reunification with their families. Caseworkers are supposed to meet monthly with the families of kids in that category to discuss progress and the child’s well-being. But the monitors found this happened less than half of the time.

Mississippi advocates for children have witnessed other problems with the system beyond those discussed in the reports.

Polly Tribble, who leads Disability Rights Mississippi, says foster children with a psychiatric diagnosis of some kind often languish in an inpatient residential facility long past when they should be released.

Joy Hogge, executive director of Families as Allies, says one of the biggest problems facing the foster care system in Mississippi is a deeply ingrained sense that people who lose custody of their kids don’t really deserve to be parents. “There’s a lot of prejudice against the families, and assumptions made about them,” she notes. "It’s important to support children in seeing their families and siblings, and in helping biological families get what they need. There’s a philosophy that these are bad parents, we need to take these children from them."

But there is good news. The reports document the department’s progress in several areas: The department licensed 357 new non-relative foster homes in 2020, exceeding the target of 351. The department ran a system of post-adoption services statewide, providing adoptive families access to counseling, mental health treatment and crisis intervention, peer support and respite services. At least 95% of children in custody were placed in the least restrictive setting (i.e., the one most similar to a family environment) that met their needs. The department’s caseworkers met educational qualifications and received adequate training.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Excerpted from a Mississippi Today report.


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