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State Has Just A Few Months To Deliver On Promises
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More than five thousand children are in the custody of Mississippi's child welfare system.  A lawsuit alleging the state isn't adequately taking care of the children in foster care was settled more than 8 years ago. But critics say the child welfare system is still over-burdened and under-funded.  An infant even died in state custody, in the home of a foster family, last year. 

As part of our series, "Crisis Point," MPB's Evelina Burnett reports on what the state has to do now to avoid a federal takeover of its child welfare system.

Almost exactly one year ago, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over Mississippi's child welfare system said the state was not fulfilling its promises of reform.  Caseloads were still too high. There weren't enough resources or foster families.  According to an independent monitor, children's lives were at risk. 

The plaintiffs asked a federal judge to hold the state in contempt.  They also wanted a federal receiver be appointed to run the Division of Family & Children's Services.

"That got the state's attention I think, more than previously," says Wayne Drinkwater, an attorney for the plaintiffs and a partner at law firm Bradley Arant Boult Cummings in Jackson.

The state agreed to hire a company to do an organization review of the child welfare. That led to an array of recommendations which became the basis of a new court order.

“What the interim remedial order does is it sets out a schedule for the state to do a number of review steps of its own operation, which will lead later in the spring, in the April, May, June time period, to essentially a reorganization of the agency.”

Some of these steps have already started.  Former state supreme court justice David Chandler became the new executive director for the Division of Family & Children’s Services last year. He reports directly to the governor and is in charge of his own budget and personnel. 

It’s the first steps in a transition that will ultimately see the agency become fully independent of the Department of Human Services.

Chandler recently testified before the House appropriations committee. He is revamping the agency to meet the requirements of the court order and is asking for $34.5 million dollars from the state to do it.

This includes a plan to increase salaries of caseworkers and social work supervisors so that they're paid the same as those in similar positions in other state agencies. Chandler also plans to add nearly 350 positions, including 260 caseworkers, supervisors and aides.

Chandler was a judge for about 15 years. He gave the appropriations committee a guarded warning about what he believes the presiding judge in the case against the state might do.

“If I were in his place, I would say it’s probably time to put up or shut, and I expect if there’s no funding forthcoming, or if I don’t do my job getting a plan together, I expect Judge Lee is going to see if he can’t do a better job of it himself," he said.

Chandler tells MPB News that progress is also being made on other parts of the order. He's asked for funding for foster families and placement agencies, and for new technology and equipment.

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The order requires that the agency improve its data gathering software and give caseworkers smartphones and tablets, so they can report and find information in the field - where they spend much of their time.

“I’ll tell you that if the legislature gives us the money that we’re requesting, I think we’ll be able to meet every objective in there that we have been ordered to meet by May 15," he says. "So right now, I’d say we’re doing OK.”

Getting enough money from the legislature has traditionally been one of the division’s Achilles heels.  So will the legislature find the funding the division says it needs?  House appropriations chair Herb Frierson is a Republican from Poplarville. 

"We’ve got to do it, we don't have any other choice," he says. "It's a federal court order. We're going to have to do it, probably should it, whether it’s a federal court order or not. It was just competing with a lot of other high priority items, and now the fact that the court has intervened, it has become the priority."

Governor Phil Bryant is backing the division's funding request, along with a bill to make the division a fully independent agency by 2017.  The Governor says he thinks legislators are going to step up to ensure that the agency has the funding it needs.

"If we don’t do it, the federal courts will. The federal courts could come in and say you’re going to spend 70, 80 million dollars. So we need to be able to take on our responsibility and not have the federal court order us to take care of our foster children.

"We should be ashamed of ourselves if we don’t get this done," he says.

An independent group will certify by May 1 whether the state is meeting its obligations under the interim order.  Even if it is, a key question will be whether the state will continue to provide the resources in future years, when threats of receivership are not looming. 

“If we could get the Mississippi legislature to provide a reasonable, basic, stable predictable amount of funding, so that we can do the things that the constitution requires, we can get this done," says plaintiffs attorney Drinkwater. "If we don’t, then we won’t."

The lives of more than five thousand Mississippi children are depending on the answer to that question.