- Associated Press - Thursday, May 22, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi officials are negotiating a third settlement with a group that sued over Mississippi’s child welfare system, after the state failed to meet the terms of two previous legal settlements over the course of six years.

Lawyers for the state and New York-based Children’s Rights told U.S. District Judge Tom Lee on Thursday that they hoped to reach a new agreement within a month. If no new settlement is reached, Children’s Rights Executive Director Marcia Robinson Lowry said she would ask Lee to hold the state in contempt of court.

“There’s real urgency. This has just gone on too long,” she told Lee.

The Olivia Y. case was filed in 2004, alleging that the state’s foster care system and investigations of abused children violated children’s constitutional rights. The state settled in 2008, and although both sides agree the state has progressed, both Mississippi and Children’s Rights agree more work is needed.

A recent report by court-appointed monitor Grace Lopes found Mississippi is still failing to produce key data, including complete measures of how many cases each worker has.

“You can’t manage anything if you can’t count it,” Lowry said after the hearing. She emphasized the importance of hiring more supervisors and using more systematic planning and management. Otherwise, she warned, the Department of Human Services would have little control over practices in individual county offices.

DHS Executive Director Rickey Berry declined to explain after the hearing why his department can’t produce the data it agreed to submit, and otherwise declined to comment.

The monitor’s report also found Mississippi isn’t meeting a 24-hour requirement for starting a child endangerment investigation, or a 30-day requirement to finish them. Only 36 percent of cases in the year ended July 2013 met those standards.

Lopes told Lee there are “very substantial remaining capacity deficits” that need to be “confronted and addressed on an expedited schedule.”

Rusty Fortenberry, the lawyer representing Berry and Gov. Phil Bryant, said the state has spent $4 million and diverted other resources to produce data. He also noted that 128 caseworkers have been added statewide since 2010.

“The state’s position is we need to be cautious,” he said. “Frankly, progress in every area can’t occur overnight. The defendants are acting in good faith.”

Lowry said that a 2-year-old boy who drowned while in foster care at a relative’s house in 2011 showed some of Mississippi’s continuing shortcomings. The boy, identified as F.M. in court papers, was staying with a relative in a house where water had been cut off and drowned either in a toilet or in a cooler where water was being stored. No permanent caseworker was assigned to the boy, with supervision rotating among employees. The state allowed the boy to stay at the home even though safety problems were identified during an inspection, and seven children were living there, a violation of numerical limits.

The monitoring report says the state has been implementing “remedial recommendations” as a result of F.M.’s death.

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