HANCOCK COUNTY -- Spokeswoman Julia Bryan dismissed any intentional wrongdoing by the Department of Human Services in response to Hancock County Sheriff Ricky Adam voicing suspicions regarding requested documents. Adam had said a document essential to a probe into the county's DHS office was missing. He also said he suspected a "data dump" to tie up his investigators.
Bryan said DHS staff are working to efficiently process cases while working with the youth courts and all local law enforcement, including the sheriff's office.
Last week, Adam told the Sun Herald his investigators were unable to find the original document used in court to take Mindy Stiglet's child into state custody.
Stiglet is the lead complainant who sparked Adam's probe into the DHS office in Hancock County. Early this year, she said a DHS worker had forged her signature on the document.
As other complaints of tampered documents surfaced, the sheriff's office subpoenaed Stiglet's entire case file from DHS. In it they found numerous documents but not the one they were looking for.
The sheriff said he believes the original was destroyed.
Bryan, however, said the missing document could just as easily be a mistake because DHS' Department of Family and Child Services still uses paper files.
"As to the questions regarding documents, it is within appropriate protocol to ensure an original document, if required, is in a case file," Bryan said. "However, statistics show that filing systems, which rely on paper documents for record management, are subject to being misplaced or misfiled. DFCS does continue to use paper files, and the division as well as the whole of the agency adheres to Mississippi Code and MDHS policy as to record retention."
The sheriff and his investigators also voiced concerns over what they saw as a possible DHS "data dump."
After the sheriff announced a criminal investigation into the county DHS office, investigators began receiving more case referrals and duplicates of case referrals, Investigator Steve Saucier said.
DHS referrals are sent to law enforcement agencies whenever a crime is suspected in a child protection case.
Adam said the number of referrals, including duplicates, coming to his office has steadily increased, despite fewer children being taken into custody.
In response, Bryan said although the number of children in custody has "decreased slightly" in Hancock County, it does not necessarily lead to fewer DHS investigations.
"Unfortunately, child abuse, neglect and exploitation reports have risen statewide, which precipitates a corresponding rise in the number of investigations," she said. "It is very common that reports/referrals are duplicated as one or more persons may call in the same case or incidence."
The sheriff's investigation remains active as deputies delivered the Stiglet case documents to the Mississippi Forensics Lab this week.
Stiglet's was the first criminal complaint investigators received shortly after the county's foster-care crisis became highly publicized in January and spawned a local Youth Court task force and a 100-page report by the state legislature's investigative committee. The report placed most of the blame on DHS and Youth Court, saying internal factors are causing Hancock's high foster-care rate, which is about 10 times the state average and the worst per-capita rate ever seen in Mississippi.