JACKSON Gov. Phil Bryant seemed prepared to fight to keep control over Mississippi's foster-care system last week after attorneys representing the children asked U.S. District Judge Tom Lee to hold the State in contempt of court and to turn over the system to a court-appointed receiver.
"You've got to remember that these plaintiffs' attorneys make a lot of money keeping this case going," the governor told reporters at the Capitol last week.
"They do not want to settle it; they do not want to admit that we are making tremendous progress in Child Protection Services, so we intend to vigorously go and defend our position and our belief that we are in compliance."
The more-than-decade-old lawsuit against the foster-care system had turned into one settlement agreement after another, with the state making some progress in recent years. That is, until May 31 when the attorneys moved for the takeover.
As the Jackson Free Press previously reported, the State is out of compliance with the agreement leaders entered into, and the primary source of non-compliance is meeting the required caseload percentages. As a part of the agreement between CPS and attorneys suing on behalf of foster-care children, caseworkers at CPS are only allowed to have a set amount of cases each in order to ensure that each child in foster care receives the proper attention and care.
Out of Compliance
When all parties in the long-running "Olivia Y" lawsuit agreed to let 2017 be a year of growth without consequences for CPS, a very new state agency at the time, the understanding was that the State would be in compliance with the necessary caseload requirements by the end of the year. The State made progress in that area—but then plateaued.
In the fall, and by December 2017, 61 percent of the State's caseworkers were meeting their caseload percentages. The agreement required 90 percent. Attorneys waited before dragging the State back into court. They met with Commissioner Jess Dickinson, who was in the midst of budgetary challenges, in March. Since then, caseload percentage compliance has actually declined, court records show.
"We think without adequate caseloads, nothing else is going to work out in any kind of way...," Marcia Lowry, one of the lead attorneys who works with A Better Childhood, said. "... They need caseworkers, and they do not have them."
Dickinson expressed his need for more workers back in March, when he also went to the Legislature requesting deficit funds for the current fiscal year. More workers would lower the caseload number, presumably, because there would be more workers to take on the State's shrinking number of cases. And even though the State has lowered the number of children in foster care by nearly 700 kids in the past year, its caseload percentage has gotten worse—it's at 52 percent as of May. Dickinson and CPS would not comment on the impending litigation beyond a statement.
"Mississippi's foster-care system has made great strides and recorded significant improvement since MDCPS was established in 2016. We are confident we are moving in the right direction to ensure the continued protection and safety of at-risk children and their families," the statement says. "We disagree with the plaintiff's assertions and will continue working diligently each day to care for the thousands of abused and neglected children entrusted into our custody for protection."
Need for 'More Funding'
CPS is an executive-level agency, and Bryant appointed Dickinson to replace former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice David Chandler, who led CPS for a year and a half, and retired in August 2017.
The governor is relying on the State's progress and track record to fend off receivership. He is proud of the fact that the number of kids in custody has dropped from more than 6,000 a year ago to 5,403 currently. But even with that drop in children, due to either adoption or reunification, the state's caseload compliance has not improved.
Lowry said the State's noncompliance is likely a combination of both the agency's inability to retain workers, as well as organizational structure and leadership.
"We're not trying to micromanage the agency; we've just set standards that they have to meet, and they are not meeting them," she said.
The new motion for contempt says that several top-level CPS workers have left or will leave the agency this month. It even suggests that Dickinson is not the right leader for CPS.
"As will be shown at the hearing on the present motion, it is apparent that Commissioner Dickinson is simply not capable of operating the agency in such a way to achieve compliance with the Court's requirements," the court documents say.
Beyond shifting personnel levels, CPS might need more funds. CPS originally requested more than $249 million in funding for fiscal-year 2019, which begins July 1.
Dickinson told the Jackson Free Press that this amount is not nearly enough to pay caseworkers what he needs to keep them from leaving. The Legislature appropriated over $247 million to CPS, however, and even Bryant admits the agency could use more funding.
"I wish we had more funding. I will tell you that this is something we should fund above all other things, and we will see how the Legislature continues to deal with that," Bryant said last week. "We need to hire more social workers. They are actually hard to find, and this is a tough job. So if you get a new social worker who comes right out of a university and realizes how tough it is, we lose a lot of them."
Only one other foster-care system in the country has entered receivership: Washington, D.C., back in the 1990s. Lowry was a part of that case, too.
Receivership is a drastic step, one that Lowry says she tries to avoid. But in Mississippi, it is too late, she maintains.
Now a judge must determine the fate and control of the more than 5,000 children in the State of Mississippi's custody.
Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @arielle_amara.