NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

February 12, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Sigh. Another day, another dysfunctional child welfare agency. Read about it here (New York Times, 1/17/16) This time it’s Mississippi’s and the situation has gotten so bad that a federal court may resort to placing the organization under the direction of a receiver. Were that to happen, it would be the first time in the history of the country.

[A]fter a 2008 settlement and an admission by the state in July that it had never complied with the requirements, Mississippi is now trying to avoid becoming the first state to have its child welfare system put in receivership and an outside group hired to run it.

Readers of this blog know that Texas has already seen its child welfare agency sued and a special master appointed by the federal judge who heard the case. The state is appealing that ruling, but, the well-established dysfunction in the agency makes it unlikely that an appellate court will object much to the judge’s findings.

But the same thing happened in 2008 in Mississippi. There too a federal judge issued a sweeping consent decree under which the state agreed to make wholesale changes to how it deals with children at risk for abuse or neglect. Mississippi promptly ignored the ruling to which it had agreed. As recently as last year, the state simply admitted that it hadn’t complied with the court’s order. That likely means that someone is in contempt of that order. It may mean that the court simply appoints a receiver to run the state agency.

The state, in subsequent settlement agreements, has promised to overhaul its system, including hiring more staff and significantly improving its ability to track children. But in July, after the plaintiffs filed a contempt motion, Mississippi publicly acknowledged for the first time that it had failed to comply with the agreement in the seven years since the original settlement. A monitor’s most recent report, submitted to the court last month, shows 12 of the 13 regions in the state backsliding. “The agency does not have the capacity to protect children,” said Marcia Lowry, a child welfare advocate and the director of A Better Childhood, the group overseeing the suit against Mississippi.

Would appointing a receiver fix the problem? I doubt it. One of the main sources of difficulty is the state legislature’s adamant unwillingness to properly fund the agency. The state can hang any title it wants on whoever heads up the agency – “Director,” “Receiver,” whatever – but whoever the person is will need money to pay enough competent caseworkers to handle all the reports of abuse and neglect.

[A]ccording to data provided by the state agency, Mississippi had just 1,486 licensed foster homes for 5,142 children in its custody as of December…

The suit in 2004 claimed that the system was underfunded and chaotic with abuses not being properly investigated and children often placed in dangerous homes. The suit also pointed to dangerously high caseloads for social workers who are supposed to investigate abuse allegations and monitor foster homes. Using state data from 2001, it found that more than 6,200 reports of abuse, neglect and the use of unsafe foster homes were not investigated.

According to a court-ordered report, Mississippi in 2012 spent less on child welfare per foster child than every state but Nevada. Salaries are so low — some family workers can earn as little as $23,643 a year — that they qualify for public assistance.

There you have it. “Dangerously high caseloads” and caseworkers’ salaries so low that some of them qualify for welfare. Just imagine the quality of caseworkers that situation attracts. The state is offering one of the world’s most difficult jobs - making the call about whether to take children from parents or risk leaving them in potentially dangerous households. What happens if the caseworker gets it wrong? Perhaps the death or brutalizing of a child.

Then the state offers $23,000 per year and far more cases than one person can handle, virtually guaranteeing that he/she will do an inadequate job. Sound attractive? The Times piece doesn’t say, but my guess is that, like so many other child welfare agencies, Mississippi’s experiences stratospheric levels of caseworker turnover. Two years ago, Texas’ agency weighed in at a turnover rate exceeding 25% per year. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Mississippi’s is at least that high.

All of that comes at a steep price.

Terrible failings were documented in the case file. A child was placed with a convicted rapist. Another ended up with a foster mother who threw the toddler to a pair of snarling dogs. In other instances, the division failed to put homeless or neglected children in custody. In one case this failure led to the rape and impregnation of a 14-year-old girl…

Along Mississippi’s coast, where a growing number of children in need of care has overwhelmed available resources, social workers sometimes recommend leaving children in abusive situations to keep them from flooding the system, officials said. Officials also reported that in 2011, three years after the settlement was in effect, overwhelmed social workers destroyed evidence of abuse by shredding photographed documentation so they would not have to deal with more cases.

That’s only to be expected, given the lack of qualified caseworkers and the huge caseloads they’re asked to handle. Again, much the same has happened in Texas where several caseworkers and managers have been charged criminally for destroying evidence in a case in which three kids under four died when their mother simply walked away and left them.

Now, I’ve never argued that more money will solve the problems faced by children’s welfare agencies. No, to do that, those agencies need a profound reorientation away from taking children from their homes and toward providing services for parents who need them. That means avoiding foster care whenever possible, because children are well known to do worse on average in foster care than with their parents. Indeed, the Times article quotes the Texas federal judge saying children “almost uniformly leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.”

That’s not what you’d call a ringing endorsement of foster care.

Still, money can deal with certain issues. Until Mississippi addresses its unacceptably bad child welfare system “root and branch,” one thing to do would be to increase caseworkers’ pay, lower their caseloads and attract better applicants for the job. Money could do all that.

So what’s Mississippi’s response?

[Head of the Division of Family and Children’s Services] Justice Chandler said he would seek an increase of $34.5 million in the agency’s budget…

In the last legislative session, the Bryant administration requested an increase of about $12 million in funding, explicitly citing the need for settlement compliance. The Legislature came up with about $3 million…

State Representative Herb Frierson, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said that the Legislature wanted to satisfy the court, but that budgets were already tight and a steep revenue shortfall was expected this year.

“It’s going to be tough,” Mr. Frierson said.

The court order is almost eight years old. The state hasn’t complied with its obligations and shows no evidence of doing so any time soon. Meanwhile, children suffer. In other words, it’s business as usual.


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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

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#childprotectiveservices, #Mississippi, #receivership, #childabuse, #childneglect

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