Three-year-old Olivia Y. weighed only 22 pounds—less than half what she should have weighed—when the Mississippi courts took her from her abusive mother and turned her over to the foster-care system. Her caseworker described the severely traumatized toddler as "petite" and "quiet," and failed to provide the mental and physical care she needed while moving her repeatedly—once into a home with a convicted rapist.
Caseworkers moved John A. 35 times and institutionalized him 13 times in five years. John was 9 when he entered Mississippi's foster-care system, diagnosed as mentally ill. Without consistent care, he was taking six different drugs at one point, and although he was eligible for permanent adoption, Mississippi's Division of Family and Children's Services had done little to provide for him.
April 3, 2007, was a good day for Mississippi's most defenseless children. That's the day Gov. Haley Barbour and Attorney General Jim Hood agreed to settle the 2004 federal class action suit filed on behalf of the state's 3,500 foster children under the care of the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
"We obviously think that this is a very good resolution of this phase of the case. We were prepared to go to trial on May 7 to prove that children's constitutional rights had been violated. … The fact that the state has agreed not to contest the violation moves us a step forward," Marcia Lowry, director of the non-profit Children's Rights Inc. in New York City, told the Jackson Free Press via telephone. Children's Rights Inc. initiated the federal suit after they completed an investigation they undertook in 2001. "The situation in Mississippi is really very extreme. What has been particularly troubling about it is that the extent of the deprivation in the state's child welfare system has been so well recognized for so long," she said, "and yet no actions have ever been taken to remedy them."
The first "official" sign of trouble in the system was a 1992 report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, finding MDHS' effectiveness "seriously compromised by the absence of well-trained professionals at all levels and the lack of quality assurance systems." That same year, the Child Welfare League of America warned that children were in danger of abuse or death due to excessive caseloads and inadequate staffing.
A February 2006 review of MDHS and DFCS titled "Beyond Danger!" commissioned by the defendants in the federal suit, identified at least 15 formal and informal assessments of the sick system since 1992. Those assessments did little or nothing to improve conditions for the children, although it has made for excellent political-speech fodder.
As late as his State of the State address in January 2006, Barbour devoted three sentences to the system when he said: "We must address the needs of our foster care system and the more than 3,000 vulnerable children and families it serves. … I will ask the Legislature to pass bills to increase both the number and quality of social workers actively involved in direct care, so resources are used more effectively to insure the foster care system is improved."
Barbour did not mention the broken system in his January 2007 speech.
In his financial assessment of the agency for the defendants, Bill M. Brister outlines the millions of unspent and forfeited federal dollars and ineffective management of allocated state funds. "MDHS' fiscal practices failed to meet minimum professional standards," Brister states in the report's executive summary, "causing … the children in its care to unnecessarily suffer." Another report, titled "Custody, but No Care," by Peg Hess, focused on 286 random cases in nine counties documenting "pervasive failure by MDHS to protect and service the children in its custody." Those cases included maltreatment by providers, profound instability and failure to provide basic physical, dental and mental health evaluations and services, in addition to failures to provide planning, reunification or adoption services.
In a written statement responding to last week's settlement Barbour claimed, "Over the past three years, many corrective steps have been made." But to date, the only visible action taken by the Legislature or the governor's office is the settlement itself. The timing of the settlement is fortuitous in light of the potentially damaging publicity the case may have generated in the Mississippi gubernatorial race this year.
Under the proposed terms of the settlement, Mississippi will have six months to come up with a plan of action with a five-year implementation period. Should the parties not agree on the settlement, or if the state does not meet the provisions of the settlement, going to trial is still an option.
"It's going to take better management, better training," said Melody McAnally of Jackson law firm Bradley Arant Rose & White, who told the JFP that Ricky Felder, currently head of DFCS, has no child welfare experience. She added that the first priorities must be to expand the number of foster-care providers, reduce the number of cases for the caseworkers and improve the training for supervisors and workers in the field.
A May 17 hearing will take place in the Eastland Federal courthouse in Jackson where class members and their counsel can show support for or object to the settlement's provisions.