Terrible Things are Happening to Children in Mississippi and the State Isn't Doing Anything About It
Ohanian Comment: Once again, resources for those who are most vulnerable, most in need of assistance, are taken away. Mississippi politicos, who already offered little to poor people, now take even that away. But as the Jackson lawyer points out, this is about much more than money. Why do Mississippi residents allow this to happen? Why do the rest of us?
JACKSON, Miss.-- The start of Child Abuse Prevention Month on Thursday will be especially grim in Hancock County, where child welfare advocates have long gotten used to making do with less.
Counselors at the Family First Resources Center, which was set to open this week on the Gulf Coast and teach parenting skills to those at risk of losing their children, are instead packing up their office, a result of a sudden cutback by the state.
In explaining the closing of 34 child abuse prevention centers across the state, officials at the Mississippi Department of Human Services blamed the previous administration for allocating $20 million it never had.
"It's always been a struggle but this has been a real blow to us," said Bridget Logan, executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse, in Gulfport.
The cuts could not have come at a worse moment for children's advocates in Mississippi, which critics say has one of the most flawed and poorly financed child welfare systems in the nation. To compound the growing sense of crisis, state and federal investigators announced last week that they had begun an investigation into whether $89 million in child abuse financing was misspent, including accusations that some of the money was used for vacations and expensive cars.
Buffeted by a $150 million deficit, the state will stop child care assistance payments to 100 families this month.
In an effort to force improvements, Children's Rights, an advocacy group in New York, filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court on Tuesday accusing the state of turning its back on vulnerable children by ignoring all but the most egregious complaints or leaving neglected children in the homes of people whom caseworkers have identified as unfit. Faced with a lack of qualified foster families, hundreds of children languish in group homes or shelters, sometimes for years.
In a similar lawsuit last year, Children's Rights forced New Jersey to overhaul its child welfare system.
"Terrible things are happening to children in Mississippi, and the state isn't doing anything about it," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, the group's executive director. "In New Jersey, children were taken into care and treated barely. In Mississippi, they're not even taking kids into custody."
In recent years, the group has filed lawsuits in six other states that have led to court-ordered overhauls.
Idetra Berry, a spokeswoman for Mississippi's Department of Human Services, said the agency had not yet reviewed the lawsuit and could not comment.
Since the early 1990's, the state's Division of Family and Children's Services has been plagued by budget cuts and staff shortages so severe that in some counties, social workers handle as many as 100 cases; in one county, Forrest, the load exceeds 200. The Child Welfare League of America suggests a caseload of 17, a widely accepted national standard.
Judge Margaret Alfonso, a family court judge in Harrison County, said the impact on children had been "disastrous." "When you have that kind of caseload, there is no way that children are being adequately protected," Judge Alfonso said.
In one of the more sensational cases of abuse, a Jackson man pleaded guilty last May to scalding to death his girlfriend's infant son. In a case cited by Children's Rights, a 2-year-old in a home that had been recently visited by a caseworker was killed for wetting himself.
As early as 1995, federal officials criticized Mississippi for failing to protect children from abuse. In 2001, the agency's director resigned to protest a lack of adequate protection for children. In January, the newly elected Republican governor, Haley Barbour, told reporters that the department "has collapsed for lack of management and a lack of leadership."
Because of a shortage of finances, the agency loses millions of dollars in federal matching grants, giving Mississippi the lowest ranking among states receiving child welfare financing from Washington. According to Children's Rights, the state spends about $50 million each year on child abuse prevention programs compared with $74 million in Arkansas, $172 million in Kansas and $309 million in Iowa.
In 2002, the agency provided services in fewer than half the cases in which abuse or neglect had been confirmed. Each year the state receives more than 16,000 reports of children being harmed but, according to its own assessment, is able to investigate fewer than half of them because of a dearth of caseworkers. Less than 15 percent of abuse complaints to the agency are substantiated, down from 34 percent in 1997.
The decline, child advocates say, can be tied to a steep drop in social workers, many of whom quit in frustration. "We can't recruit anyone to come here because there's such negative feelings about D.H.S.," said Laurie Johnson, executive director of Casas Mississippi, which works with children in the court system.
Jeffrey Johns, executive director of the nonprofit Mississippi Court Advocacy and Justice Institute, said he often watched in frustration as cases of severe abuse went uninvestigated. He cited the case of an 18-month-old girl who had been sexually assaulted in her home. Rather than identify the assailant, caseworkers, Mr. Johns said, were trying to send the child back home.
"It's like a house on fire that we're all watching burn," he said.
Among the plaintiffs in the Children's Rights lawsuit are four siblings in Forrest County who were reportedly malnourished and living in an unsafe home. Instead of referring the case to the county's youth court, a caseworker sent the children, ages 2 to 9, to the home of their elderly great-grandmother, who was already struggling to care for six other children, the lawsuit alleged.
When the woman protested, according to the lawsuit, she was told the children would otherwise be given to strangers and she might never see them again. When the woman had a stroke, the caseworker sent the children back to the mother, who had earlier been determined to be unfit.
Court documents cite another plaintiff, Jamison J., 17, who has spent most of his life cycled through 28 foster homes and institutions, some of them abusive. The lawsuit claims the Division of Family and Children's Services ignored opportunities for adoption and later sent the boy back to the home of his mother, where he witnessed the beating of another child. Despite his complaints to a caseworker, the child was later killed by the mother's companion.
Wayne Drinkwater, a Jackson lawyer who is co-counsel in the Children's Rights lawsuit, said the deficiencies were longstanding and systemic.
"This has gone on so long that it's hopeless to expect the state to ever cure the problems on its own," Mr. Drinkwater said. "Part of the problem may be financial, but it's more than that. It's about priorities and abused and neglected children don't have a lobbyist. They have no political influence in the Legislature."
New York Times
Taking on Mississippi's Short-of-Resources Child Protection System