Mississippi is in danger of losing control of its child welfare system. In mid-May the state is due back in federal court to prove it’s finally living up to its agreement to reform the troubled agency, which currently has more than 5,000 children in its care.
MPB’s Evelina Burnett reports on how foster care in the state got to this point. It's a story, she says, that stretches back decades.
It was 1978 when Sue and Chris Cherney moved to Mississippi. He took over as head of Mississippi Children’s Home Services, a private non-profit child welfare and behaviorial health organization. It's a position he would hold until his retirement 35 years later. Chris says, when they moved here, he had a relatively positive impression of the Department of Human Services, which was then called the Department of Public Welfare.
"They had some really old-line, good social work administrators, particularly in the state office building, and they had some experienced and well-qualified regional directors," Chris recalls, adding: "They were accessible, they were knowledgable, and relatively easy to work with.”
Sue Cherney formed a faith-based agency for foster care children and youth in 1988, where she worked until she retired last year. She says over the past three decades, the needs of children in Mississippi have escalated dramatically.
"Whether it's drugs, gangs, sexual abuse, the meth epidemic," she says. "The grinding poverty, family disintegration ... so from our point of view the system changed drastically and became overwhelmed by the intensive needs of the kids coming in."
Another problem, they say: lack of consistency at the top.
"What we both saw over the years is that every time a new governor was elected, you had a new executive director of the department of human services," Chris Cherney says. "We counted and right up to the current one, there have been 12, so that averaged a new one every three years."
By 1992, a study by the Child Welfare League of America warned that Mississippi children in custody were in danger due to low staffing, high caseloads and lack of foster homes. Those were some of the same issues cited in the class action lawsuit filed against the state 12 years later.
Beth Casey became a DHS caseworker in Harrison County in 1990. She says when she started, she had 33 cases, "and out of those 33, 11 were foster care kids," she says. "So that is a very manageable caseload. You can spend a lot of time with the foster kids, and you could spend time with the foster parents."
But during the next decade and a half, she says, budget cuts led the agency to stop filling open positions. The number of caseworkers plummeted – there were just five for all of Harrison County by 2002.
Caseloads skyrocketed. In 2003, the average in Harrison County was 114 cases per worker.
The then-director of the Division of Family & Children’s Services warned repeatedly the system was dangerously under-resourced, with more than 6,200 unattended cases in 2001. She resigned in protest the following year.
That same year, in 2002, Casey and others on the Gulf Coast formed a group called Professionals Advocating for Children Together, or PACT.
"Our mission was to advocate for children in Harrison County who are being abused and neglected, and protect them from continued abuse and neglect," says Shelley Foreman.
Foreman, now executive director of the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center, where Casey also works, says one of her cases was part of the motivation for the founding of PACT. In that case, she and an attorney had tried repeatedly - without success - to get DHS to investigate suspected physical and sexual abuse of a preschool child.
“We talked extensively about it and said we cannot continue to allow this to happen. We've have to do something to change the system," Foreman says, adding: "If an attorney and the therapist of the child can't get somebody to investigate what's clearly happening to this child, then you can only imagine what’s happening with other reporters in the community.”
The group talked to local media, legislators, they held candlelight vigils and met with local civic groups - whatever they could do to get the word out. They were ultimately able to get some changes made, such as helping increase salaries of Harrison County caseworkers.
But the entire state child welfare system was in for a reckoning, and in 2004, a class action lawsuit, Olivia Y, vs Barbour, was filed. Olivia Y. was 3 years old but weighed just 22 pounds when she entered state custody in 2003. The frail child cycled through 5 different placements during her first three months in state care, including one week in a home with a convicted rapist.
Marcia Robinson Lowry is executive director of A Better Childhood. She's one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case.
"The state agreed to settle the lawsuit to avoid a trial," she says. "So January 4, 2008, the lawsuit was settled."
The settlement required wide-ranging reforms, but the court monitor in the case has repeatedly said the state is not living up to its agreements. In a heartbreaking echo of the 1992 study, the monitor's most recent report says the system's continuing failures contributed to the death of a child: a baby who died just 5 days after entering state custody last year.
Just as in 1992, caseloads are too high, staffing is too low, and qualified foster homes, too few.
"It's hard to imagine that Mississippi's child welfare system could get worse, but it has," Lowry says. "The state's actually deteriorated, which is frightening and appalling and unconscionable."
Last year, the plaintiffs asked that a federal receiver be appointed to take over the child welfare system. The state has agreed to comply with a last-chance interim order. It will be back in court in mid-May when the judge will decide if it's finally meeting its promises.
The Division of Family & Children's Services says that, as of Jan. 22, 2016, the state had 5,147 children in custody.