- Associated Press - Thursday, January 7, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A new report finds that Mississippi’s child welfare system continues to deteriorate, raising the stakes for state government’s effort to stave off a federal judge from taking over the system.

The report, covering the year that ended June 30, is the second in a row to find the state is backsliding in efforts to meet settlement obligations in a long-running Olivia Y federal lawsuit. The case is named after a then-young girl who was one of eight children who lawyers said had been abused because of the state’s failures.

Performance declined in all but one of 13 regions, and none met even half the 19 standards.

“It’s as if these children are out there in a forest or a desert with no kind of structure around them,” said Marcia Lowry, one of the lead lawyers for plaintiffs in the case.

Gov. Phil Bryant in December named former Supreme Court Justice David Chandler to lead the Division of Family and Children’s Services, ordering the unit of the Department of Human Services to report directly to him. He also pledged to increase funding.

“The governor understands that the system is broken and that drastic improvement must be made to avoid federal takeover,” spokesman Knox Chandler wrote in an email. “Justice Chandler and Gov. Bryant will work tirelessly to ensure Mississippi’s foster children receive the best care and comfort. They deserve nothing less.”

The report, by court-appointed monitor Grace Lopes, delves deeply into an infant who died five days after entering state custody in early 2015. The infant died while sleeping in bed with the foster parents, a prohibited practice.

The foster parents’ own child had died the same way earlier, and complaints about their care for two sets of foster children were received in 2014. The department placed the infant without inspecting the foster parents’ new home, and didn’t know the foster mother had lost her job and had been convicted of a crime. The report also faulted the state for how it handled the investigation afterward, saying files in the case were difficult to follow and a death review panel made recommendations without documenting how they would prevent a recurrence.

“There does not appear to be any systematic way in which the DFCS responds to and reviews cases in which there is a fatality of a child in custody,” wrote a consultant hired by Lopes.

In the wake of the child’s death, the department also disclosed that local officials weren’t following rules on training foster families, and had pushed 132 foster families through one-day training sessions, instead of training them over weeks as required by state policy.

The report said the system was pressured by a 26 percent increase in children in state custody from mid-2013 to mid-2015, placing “significant strain on the agency’s understaffed workforce, contributing to a decline in defendants’ performance.”

In Hinds, Harrison, Jackson and Hancock counties, 64 percent of caseworkers and supervisors carried a caseload that exceeded settlement mandates. In Mississippi’s other 78 counties, 48 percent of caseworkers and supervisors carried a caseload exceeding requirements.

Lopes said increasing populations don’t bear all the blame. The monitor said the state has struggled with “demonstrable shortcomings” in management and accountability.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy


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