A taskforce examining the youth court and foster care system in Hancock County is recommending a number of changes. MPB’s Evelina Burnett reports, the taskforce was formed last year to address the large number of children in state custody in the coastal county.
The group's recommendations include improving communication between the departmetn of human services and the youth court, and looking at the drug screening process to make it more efficient and less costly. Taskforce chairman David Baria says one of their major recommendations is that the county and court identify substance abuse treatment and mental health services for families who need them.
"We are deficient across our state in those two areas," he says. "We focus on putting people in jail and taking their children, and obviously we need to do that in some cases. But we also need to focus on taking care of our citizens and providing them access to services that they need, so that they can take care of their own families."
Baria says some improvements have already been made, including more DHS staff and a parent representation program. David Chandler is commissioner of the new Department of Child Protection Services. He says there are nearly 14-hundred children in state custody in the three coastal counties.
“I'm paying very careful attention to the services provided in Hancock, Harrison, Jackson counties, as I am the entire state," he says. "But the coast has our attention. We are providing close supervision to our employees here."
There are currently about 330 children in foster care in Hancock County. That’s down considerably from 2 years ago, when there were more than 450 children in state custody, though it is still a high number compared to other counties of the same size.
Baria says another key recommendation in the taskforce report was to change the format of the youth court, from the current part-time "youth court referee" model to a full-time county court judge. .
"There is some expense involved, but we believe in Hancock County it's justified because we're already spending way more than we should be spending on a youth court referee model," he says. He notes the judge will also be able to take on other county court cases.
State law mandates that county courts be used when the population reaches 50,000 people. Hancock County's population in 2010 was about 44,000 people.