Lawyers Seek Court Control of Mississippi Foster Care System | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Lawyers Seek Court Control of Mississippi Foster Care System

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Lawyers who have been suing Mississippi for 10 years over conditions in its child welfare system said Monday that it's time for a federal judge to take the system over.

In a contempt motion filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson, they said Mississippi's Department of Human Services is either unwilling or unable to fix the problems, breaking four agreements pledging improvements over seven years in what's known as the Olivia Y. case. At the time the case was filed, Olivia Y. was a malnourished 3-year-old in state foster care.

"The children can't wait another seven years for this," Marcia Robinson Lowry, a lawyer for New York-based A Better Childhood, told The Associated Press by telephone. "It is a total misuse of state resources and who knows how many children are being harmed every day."

The group asked U.S. District Judge Tom Lee to order an outside analysis of the system and then appoint a receiver to take over the child welfare system. That receiver would run that part of the Department of Human Services and Lee could order the state to spend more money on the problem if necessary. The plaintiffs want a hearing in three months to put on evidence and witnesses.

Julia Bryan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, said in an email the agency's attorneys will review the filing. "The agency does not comment on pending litigation," she said.

The state originally settled in 2008, but failed to meet the requirements of that plan. The state and the plaintiffs then agreed on a 2009 "bridge plan." When the state didn't keep that agreement, Lowry sought a contempt ruling, but Lee ordered the parties to negotiate more. They reached a modified settlement in 2012. But it too went unfulfilled.

Though the state increased its number of social workers and recorded some improvements, there have been fundamental problems it has never been able to resolve. For example, Lowry said the state still can't track how many cases each employee is handling. She also cited problems with training, and noted that the number of children being held in unlicensed foster care actually rose from 2013 to 2014.

"There are enormous capacity deficits in the agency," Lowry said. "The agency doesn't function."

A May 2014 monitoring report found the state only met 10 of 33 settlement requirements, failed 13 and didn't provide enough data to judge the other 10.

Last year, the state and Lowry agreed to a fourth plan, where the state would hire a "director of sustainable transformation." As part of that deal, Lowry got a veto over the hire, and the state pledged to get Lee to order a higher salary if necessary. Lowry said the state sabotaged the effort by only recruiting people who would accept the current state salary schedule. The state presented one candidate by the Nov. 1 deadline, whom Lowry vetoed.

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