JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi may consider making its child welfare unit a separate agency under a judge's order in the latest effort to resolve a longstanding lawsuit over conditions in the state's foster care system.
The change could require a special legislative session.
In an order signed Thursday by U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee, the state agreed to hire consultants who will recommend changes to the system, including whether the child welfare unit should become a separate agency from the state Department of Human Services.
The order recommends that Gov. Phil Bryant call legislators into special session to deal with proposed changes, but a special session could be several months away because the consultants will need time to make recommendations.
Legislators' next regular session begins in January.
The governor's spokeswoman, Nicole Webb, said Bryant would comment on the court order later Thursday.
A court-appointed monitor in the Olivia Y lawsuit found that the state Department of Human Services was falling short in efforts to improve Mississippi's foster care system. Lawyers say the case is named after one of eight children who had been abused because of the state's failures.
The lawsuit alleged caseworkers were poorly trained and overworked and the state had a shortage of safe foster homes. Some of Mississippi's 3,500 foster children have been sexually abused and denied adequate medical care, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit said there were dangerously high caseloads, untrained caseworkers, a shortage of foster homes, and a widespread failure to provide basic health care services
The state and the plaintiffs have settled twice before in the Olivia Y case, but both times the state has failed to live up to the agreements. Earlier this year, court monitor Grace Lopes wrote that the state fell further out of compliance in the year that ended June 30, 2014.
Lopes found that region-by-region efforts to prepare for statewide compliance were dragged down by continued staffing shortages, as well as continued trouble with the Department of Human Services' computer system. She found children were still being held in unlicensed foster care, workers weren't visiting foster children as often as required and initial medical screenings were usually not being conducted within 24 hours of a child entering custody.
Plaintiffs had wanted the state to be held in contempt for failing to live up to previous agreements, and Lee had set an Aug. 10 hearing for both sides to present evidence on that request. Marcia Robinson Lowry, an attorney for the plaintiffs, had been pushing for Lee to appoint a receiver to take control of the child welfare system out of the hands of the state.
Both sides asked Lee to put the hearing off in light of the agreement.
But the order signed by Lee says that once a decision is made on governance of the foster care system, both sides must agree on a plan to implement it. It no agreement can be reached, Lee said plaintiffs can ask for a contempt hearing.