JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Hinds County chancery judge on Wednesday ordered a state agency to delay the start of a finger scanning system for some parents to sign youngsters in and out of child care.
Denise Owens ruled that the Department of Human Services must restart rule-making. That means mid-December — not Nov. 1 — is the earliest scanners could be required. Owens also ruled DHS must hold another public hearing and Xerox Corp. must stop asking child care operators to sign contracts for the scanners.
DHS wants parents who receive federally subsidized child care vouchers to use scanners, saying it will better track when children are present and absent, allowing the state to save money. Child care operators, who are already facing cutbacks in the federal funding that pays for the vouchers, are alarmed that the scanners would take even more money away from them.
Delores Suel, who owns Jackson child care centers, sued Tuesday, claiming the Department of Human Services acted illegally by proposing a rule about the scanners without filing an economic impact statement.
Attorney Lisa Ross told Owens Wednesday that the plaintiffs contend DHS didn't comply with the state law that governs how agencies make rules called the Administrative Procedures Act.
DHS initially contended no impact statement was needed, but Jill Dent, who oversees the child care division, said at a public hearing earlier this month that the agency would release one. That came after Suel delivered a letter to Dent seeking one, according to court papers, a crucial step laying ground for the lawsuit.
"We agree an economic impact statement was not included and should have been included," Assistant Attorney General Earl Scales told Owens.
Scales said the statement was filed with the secretary of state's office Friday. As of midday Wednesday, it was still not visible on the state website where administrative rules are published. After the hearing, he said the statement had taken a long time to write because of the "depth and breadth" required.
Scales said Dent is willing to meet with Suel and other child care operators to try to alleviate their concerns. Ross, though, said it took a lawsuit to bring DHS to the table.
"For months now, DHS has been unwilling to listen to the child care providers," she said. "It took a state court judge to tell them they had to listen to the providers and comply with the Administrative Procedures Act. DHS fully intended not to file an economic impact statement."
Ross argued in court that operators need a chance to truly bargain with Xerox and DHS over the terms of the scanner contract instead of just having the agreement imposed on them. They said they feared the language would take away their right to contest record-keeping mistakes and could even allow DHS to withhold money it currently owes providers.
Read the Jackson Free Press stories, by R.L. Nave, that revealed this issue and led to this decision:
Finger Scanners Spark Concerns
Editorial: Finger Scanners Spark Concern
Follow the DHS Scanner Money
AG's Office to Xerox: Back Off