- Associated Press - Friday, December 26, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi Department of Human Services is asking for an additional $12 million next budget year to continue with reforms mandated by the settlement of a decade-old federal lawsuit over how the state cares for abused and neglected children in the state’s foster care system.

This week, the state of Mississippi and an attorney for the plaintiffs filed in federal court an agreement setting forth the steps the state will take over the next several years to implement the requirements under the modified settlement agreement.

Children’s Rights, a New York-based children advocacy group, filed in the original lawsuit the 2004 lawsuit that resulted in the 2008 agreement. It is no longer involved in the case. Marcia Robinson Lowry, a former attorney with Children’s Rights, represents the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit alleged caseworkers were poorly trained and overworked and the state had a shortage of safe foster homes. Some of the state’s 3,500 foster children have been sexually abused and denied adequate medical care, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleged dangerously high caseloads, untrained caseworkers, a shortage of foster homes, and a widespread failure to provide basic health care services. A modified settlement agreement, approved in 2012, contained an action plan to address the state’s consistent failure to meet court-ordered performance standards.

However, Children’s Rights said an independent monitor determined the state was making some progress, but moving too slow in meeting goals outlined in the settlement.

The monitor was unable to make any findings about performance in approximately one third of the 33 statewide requirements because of concerns about data reliability or completeness. In the 23 areas where performance could be assessed, the Department of Human Services Division of Family and Children Services only met or exceeded portions of 10 of the requirements.

“It is deeply concerning that, ten years into this effort, the agency’s capacity issues remain profound and progress has been so limited,” said Lowry.

Mississippi has improved its data management practices, and for the first time is able to accurately report on some aspects of its performance. However, the state has not been able to produce reliable data on caseworker caseloads statewide, a critical safety measure that indicates whether a state has the capacity to effectively supervise and ensure the well-being of all children in its care, according to the court filing.

During state budget hearings, Mississippi Department of Human Services Executive Director Rickey Berry said the state needs to spend an additional $12 million to meet requirements of the lawsuit. He also said the state has seen an increase of 450 children in foster care in the past year, with many of the children entering foster care because of drug use by their biological parents.

The state had a vacancy of about 150 social workers, Berry said.

Highlights of the agreement:

- The state will complete by May 15, 2015 a written strategy for executing performance-based contracts with foster care placement providers.

- By June 15, 2015, the state will provide the independent monitor with the scope of services that will be included in a request for proposals for emergency shelter providers.

- By Aug. 1, 2015, the state will issue a request for proposals for emergency shelter providers.

- By Oct. 1, 2015, the state will provide the independent court monitor with a scope of services that will be included in request for proposals for regular group home providers, therapeutic group home providers and therapeutic resource home providers.

- By Dec. 1, 2015, the state will sign performance-based contracts with emergency shelter providers.

- By March 1, 2016, the state will sign performance-based contracts with group home providers, therapeutic group home providers and therapeutic resource home providers.

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Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com

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