Drug Test Law: Punishing Parents, Starving Kids | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Drug Test Law: Punishing Parents, Starving Kids

Beth Orlansky, advocacy director of Mississippi Center for Justice, urges the Mississippi Department of Human Services to amend House Bill 49 to address concerns about the law’s impact on needy families.

Beth Orlansky, advocacy director of Mississippi Center for Justice, urges the Mississippi Department of Human Services to amend House Bill 49 to address concerns about the law’s impact on needy families.

Poor Mississippi children could go hungry if their parents test positive for drug use under a new state law that was supposed to go into effect on July 1, but has been delayed.

Civil-liberties advocates and community members met with the Mississippi Department of Human Services Tuesday to discuss concerns about the controversial drug-testing law passed in January that affects those receiving public assistance.

While the law, House Bill 49, was supposed to take effect July 1, the Mississippi Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi urged MDHS to delay its implementation in order to hold a public hearing.

"I shudder to wonder what would have happened if the ACLU, the ACLU of Mississippi, and the Mississippi Center for Justice had not been paying attention. Would this law have just been implemented and these policies put out without any benefit of the public having the opportunity to be heard?" Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of ACLU of Mississippi, said Tuesday.

The law would require Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients to complete a questionnaire and possibly face a drug test if their answers suggested they use illegal drugs. Riley-Collins said the ACLU and Center for Justice have several concerns about HB 49, from what the testing instrument will actually look like to how the state plans to pay for it.

The questionnaire has not yet been released for public review, although the ACLU has submitted a public-record request for it. Riley-Collins said that while the MDHS website initially displayed a request for proposal for development of a screening instrument, it has since been taken down.

"We are hoping to be able to see what the drug screening instrument is, whether it's the SASSI that is being used in Utah or another instrument that has been developed by possibly a local contractor," Riley-Collins said.

According to its website, the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI) has a 94 percent accuracy rate and takes an average of 15 minutes to take and score. But the testing method is only one of ACLU and MCJ's concerns, which is why they encouraged the delay for a public hearing as in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act.

"We are concerned that the rules as promulgated, the policy as promulgated—that it is ambiguous, that it does not address who will pay for the drug testing as well as the drug treatment. We know that the out-of-pocket cost for drug treatment can range anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000 (per person)," Riley-Collins said.

Mississippi legislators, like Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, who sponsored the bill, say the law is designed to further assist those in the state living in poverty who have substance abuse problems. "It's about helping these people become better moms, become better dads, become better community members," Mims said.

Mims said those who test positive will continue to receive TANF while in treatment, but will be cut off from those services if they test positive at the end of the treatment. However, the ACLU and MCJ worry that the source of funding for the treatment has not been discussed.

"The legislators that proposed it argued on the floor that, 'We want to help these people. We want to help these people get drug treatment,' but nowhere in the law or in the rules does it say whose going to actually pay for the drug treatment," Riley-Collins said.

During the first year that the drug-testing law for welfare recipients was implemented in Utah, the state spent $30,000 and found 12 people who tested positive for drugs. Gov. Phil Bryant said he expects Mississippi's program to cost about the same.

A federal judge, however, struck down a similar law in Florida, which mandated drug testing for all welfare recipients without a questionnaire, last year.

Furthermore, Mississippi's HB 49 gives a whole household sanction when a parent tests positive—meaning children lose their benefits, too.

The law has no provision to protect children, like the protective payee provision implemented in other states that treats children of parents with substance abuse as a surrogate to receive TANF benefits.

Beth Orlansky, advocacy director of Mississippi Center for Justice, said TANF serves almost 16,000 low-income children each month, which amounts to 70 percent of TANF recipients.

"If HB 49 goes into full effect, children will go hungry because of the mistakes of adults. This is completely unacceptable. Our leaders must take notice and change this law," Orlansky said.

Riley-Collins said the law is ultimately an unnecessary waste of taxpayer dollars that would be better put to use in another program. But for some, the effect of HB 49 is not just a grievance—it could be devastating. "Families rely upon that $160. One-hundred and sixty dollars may not seem like a lot for you or me, but not all families that receive TANF receive all of the other quote unquote public benefits," Riley-Collins said.

It could also be a problem if a TANF recipient cannot attend the drug screening when required because of conflicts with school or work, which is also a requirement to receive TANF, Riley-Collins said. She added that there needs to be a provision that allows recipients a second opportunity to attend the screening.

"Because if you lose your job or you're not going to school, then you no longer qualify for the benefit, right? It's a catch-22," Riley-Collins said.


rickysgirl 4 years, 2 months ago

There are 2 kinds of folks on welfare. Those that truly need it, and those who don't. The 2nd group will be the ones who have some money, spend it on what they want, and let the state take care of what they need. This can be anything from drugs, to manicures, expensive phones, tattoos. Just look around. How many times have I stood in line at the store to actually PAY cash money for my food, when the person in front of me is covered in tats, 6 inch fingernails colored all kinds of bizarre, hairstyle in place, jewelry on, and paying with EBT. Get real. Welfare for those who play the system is a tool to enable them to do drugs. If you are not a drug abuser, then there is no problem with drug testing. Those that are abusers just have another kid to get more welfare so they can keep doing what they're doing. And the state falls for it every time. Welfare is an enabling tool, plain and simple. If you cannot afford your kids don't have them, but then again, most were probably conceived during a drugged or drunken stupor. When are you going to hold grown adults to THEIR responsibilities, and quite relying on the public's money to take care of those who can take care of themselves, but don't want to? Believe me, when the handouts are cut off, they will find a way to take care of the kids. If they can't, they shouldn't have them in the first place. CHeck your foster parent program, by the way, while we're at it. The more kids you foster, the more money you get. HMMMMM. Wonder where that money goes. READ THE NEWS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


js1976 4 years, 1 month ago

"Welfare for those who play the system is a tool to enable them to do drugs."

Although I am a fierce critic when discussing welfare in this country, I don't think everyone that abuses the system does so to purchase drugs. Some are just lazy, some need to extra money to pay for the tats, fingernails, jewelry, etc.

With that being said, I have no problem requiring recipients to submit to random drug testing.


mmbsmarts 4 years, 1 month ago

In every system there will be some problems, however HB 49 , after reading its entirety , does not solve the probelms it will cause. This bill is mainly a punishment, but is not in anyway helping the main people it was created to help. I am in not way in support of such bill that will punish the actions for a a small minority of wrong-doers. The bill does not specify any plans for the children it will hurt. I believe if the law makers would like to punish drug abusers then it should consider more plausiable solutions. It amazes me how much the elected officials try to create laws that will cost more funds funding then implementing laws that will help cure the problem. Most of the problem start because "adults" are lacking the education and logic to become independent and active working citizens. The best solution that legislature wants is to make sure the citizens are unware of the laws being developed and not reading these bills because a citien that will listen than "READ" on their own can be guided or misguided in anyway. This HB did not even mention the amount of money it will cost to implement this law, nor did it provide a soultion to the children that are affected, if any. This will put more money into private organizion hands instead of actually benefiting middle class citizens like myself that will have to pay for it. I am a huge advocate for children rights. They are being sold and abused and misused each day. Instead of the lawmakers creating laws to provide and tackle these problem they want to further disadvantqage these kids. WRONG! I was one. I was also a teen-parent until I acually learned and made my way through law school. YES law school. So, I will never turn my back on the poverty i was born in. I was that kid and most of the parents i know are hard workers only a few people abused the system. Just another bill from Sam Mims and Mark Formby resresentatives that do not have a care how this bill will affect the public.

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