- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 17, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Not only is Mississippi not living up to a court order to improve its child welfare system, but a court monitor finds that things may be getting worse.

The latest shortfalls in the long-running Olivia Y case could fuel a push by those who sued over foster care conditions to have the state found in contempt. They want an outsider to take control of the child welfare system from the state Department of Human Services.

U.S. District Judge Tom Lee has set a multiday hearing in Jackson on the possible contempt motion beginning Aug. 10.

“Mississippi is simply not going to protect its most vulnerable children unless the federal court takes additional action to make them do so,” said Marcia Lowry, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, in a statement. “Children’s lives depend upon it.”

Grace Lopes, appointed to monitor progress by a federal judge, wrote in a report filed Monday that the Department of Human Services fell further out of compliance during a monitoring period that ended June 30, 2014.

The period “was marked more by backsliding in areas in which defendants previously made progress and reactive responses to urgent issues, rather than strategic organizational advancement,” Lopes wrote.

While the department met 43 percent of standards in 2012-2013, that fell to 24 percent in the latest monitoring period. During this time, the state was supposed to be improving its foster care system region by region, in preparation for being in statewide compliance with a modified settlement agreement by early this year.

But Lopes said the regional approach was dragged down by continued staffing shortages, the state’s failure to hire a person to lead the transformation effort, and shifting people around to fight immediate crises.

“It appears that defendants do not have the capacity to meet many of the MSA’s most basic requirements,” Lopes wrote. “Defendants’ ongoing failure to meet these requirements has a substantial and continuing impact on the safety and well-being of the thousands of children in defendants’ custody every year and their timely placement in permanent and nurturing homes.”

During the period examined, according to the report:

- nearly 500 children were held in unlicensed foster care

- the state was failing, 80 percent of time to relay medical and educational records to foster parents or facilities

- the state provided required medical screening within 24 hours for only 27 percent of children entering custody.

- the state failed most of the time to have workers visit foster children as frequently as required.

Despite spending millions improving a computer system, workers reported that it was often offline. Lopes wrote that the department is looking toward a computer system it hopes to implement by 2020.

The Department of Human Services declined to comment about the report on Wednesday. In court filings, lawyers for the department state it shouldn’t be held in contempt even if efforts failed because state officials tried.

“Undeniably, these efforts at times encountered stumbling blocks and unexpected challenges, but defendants did not act in a contemptuous manner, worked in good faith to implement these initiatives, and made all reasonable efforts to meet the other requirements,” lawyers wrote in Monday court filings that mainly discuss events in 2012 and 2013.

Even if the state is found in contempt, lawyers argue that the judge shouldn’t give control to a receiver, but instead look to less drastic remedies.

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

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