The Mississippi Department of Human Services' latest troubles have come in threes: Children's Rights, a national advocacy group has filed a federal lawsuit against it; the state auditor is investigating the agency; and children and family advocates are criticizing Executive Director Don Taylor for closing some programs that serve poor families.
Some help has come in one case. Taylor said that he had to close 34 resource centers around the state because there were no Temporary Assistance for Needy Families dollars to fund them. Closing the centers, which provide a range of services to communities, including after-school programs, cuts $3.7 million off of a $12-million shortfall for fiscal year 2004, he said.
But Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi is coming to the rescue, giving the agency $3.4 million of tobacco money, which will be used to reopen 33 of the 34 centers, according to Rick Whitlow, media director for MDHS.
Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck went to former Attorney General Mike Moore, who is the chairman of Partnership's board, and asked for help, said Sharon Garrison, public relations manager for the organization, "and we were happy to be able to do that."
One of the centers will not be reopened, Whitlow said, because MDHS is investigating the way it handled money and other problems that he said he didn't want to get into.
Whitlow also would not comment on the lawsuit that Children's Rights filed in conjunction with local attorneys, including Wayne Drinkwater, of Jackson law firm Bradley, Arrant Rose & White, L.L.P. The civil rights suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, alleges that MDHS has put thousands of children in its care in danger and has left "many thousands more to fend for themselves in abusive and neglectful homes," according to a press release issued by Children's Rights on March 30.
Olivia Y. vs. Barbour was filed on behalf of six children whom the suit alleges have suffered physical and psychological harm while in MDHS custody or who the agency has abandoned. "Mississippi has one of the worst child welfare systems we have ever seen—so understaffed and underfunded that it literally abandons children it knows are being abandoned and neglected," Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, said in the release. "The state has ignored these profound problems for decades, failing to act despite warnings from its own officials, as well as child advocates and the federal government."
The suit does not blame Gov. Haley Barbour, Drinkwater says: "He inherited this." Nor does it seek to vilify caseworkers who are out in the trenches every day. But it should force the courts to look at the serious, pervasive problems at MDHS and to come up with solutions, whether that means legislation, policy changes or providing additional resources to the agency. "This won't be a case that goes to court and there is a verdict and everything is straightened out, and this is not about money," Drinkwater said. "I think this will be a long, projected process that could go on for years."
Oleta Fitzgerald, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund Southern Regional Office, said children's advocates are happy about the suit. "Somebody needs to continually focus attention on what's happening to these children."
Advocates have complained for years that the agency desperately needs more staff and resources, and says the suit could help with that in the long term, but advocates had hoped that the Legislature would help sooner. "It doesn't look like they (lawmakers) are going to be giving the agency the resources it needs this session," she said.
Despite help from Partnership, MDHS will still go to the Legislature with a deficit request of about $8.6 million. The deficit is largely due to the fact that TANF funding was committed to providing services like childcare to struggling families, but the money was really never available in the first place, Taylor has said.
Fitzgerald says something is wrong when an agency can commit money that it doesn't have: "That (TANF) money is the easiest money to play with. That's why we've been saying for years that the Legislature needs to reinstate an oversight board. Somebody needs to be paying attention to what's going on in the henhouse besides the fox."
MDHS will conduct a quality review, and the auditor's office is investigating with agency cooperation. "Our findings range from the lack of internal controls to unreconciled accounts of expenditures to failing to follow competitive procurement practices when awarding TANF funds," State Auditor Phil Bryant said.