- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi officials and plaintiffs in an 11-year-old lawsuit over conditions in the foster care system have made another agreement in the case, with plaintiffs saying Tuesday they will not push to have the state government held in contempt.

The move comes after a court-appointed monitor in the Olivia Y case found that the Department of Human Services was faltering in efforts to improve Mississippi’s foster care system. The case is named after a then-young girl who was one of eight children that lawyers said had been abused because of the state’s failures.

The new agreement has been submitted to U.S. District Judge Tom Lee, but wasn’t yet available in an online court docket Tuesday.

Marcia Robinson Lowry, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a news release that the state has agreed to consultants who will recommend changes, including whether the child welfare unit should be an independent agency separate from the Department of Human Services. Lowry said the consultants will also recommend a new leader for the system to Gov. Phil Bryant.

Later, though, Lowry said the news release was premature because Lee has not yet signed the agreement.

The plaintiffs in the case had wanted the state to be held in contempt, and Lee had set an Aug. 10 hearing for both sides to present evidence on that motion. Lowry had been pushing for Lee to appoint a receiver, taking control of the child welfare system out of the hands of the state.

Both sides asked Lee to put the hearing off in light of the agreement.

“My intent is to improve conditions for children who find themselves in foster care in Mississippi,” Bryant said in a statement. “These children must be protected, and that is why I have advocated the creation of a children’s cabinet. I’ll be the first to admit that Mississippi can and will do better, and I became personally involved in this issue several months ago.”

The state and the plaintiffs have settled twice before in the Olivia Y case, but both times the state has been unable to live up to the agreement. Earlier this year, court monitor Grace Lopes wrote that the state fell further out of compliance in the year that ended June 30, 2014.

Lopes found that region-by-region efforts to prepare for statewide compliance were dragged down by continued staffing shortages, as well as continued trouble with the department’s computer system. She found children were still being held in unlicensed foster care, workers weren’t visiting foster children as often as required, and that initial medical screenings were usually no being conducted within 24 hours of a child entering custody.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy

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