James Luster of Gulfport said he will never forget the events of Monday, Jan. 29. That was the day he learned he was being investigated by Mississippi Child Protective Services.
Luster denies the allegations and said they were “not true.”
“A representative from MDCPS told me that an anonymous complaint had been filed against me for abusing my children,” Luster said. “I later found out my 10-year-old daughter and my 11-year-old stepdaughter had been interrogated while they were at a Gulfport elementary school — MDCPS did not have the right to question my daughters without anyone else present.”
With more than 27,000 cases of child negligence reported in the state in 2017, more parents and guardians may find themselves in situations similar to that of Luster — wondering if the rights of their children had been violated during a one-on-one interview. The answer, according to CPS, is no.
“Our policy does not require another adult to be present during a staff member’s interview with a child,” said CPS communications director Lea Anne Brandon.
Under a CPS policy section provided by Brandon, it also says the parent does not have to be notified of the interview.
According to the policy, “The Worker will notify the parent/ guardian or custodian or caretaker before interviewing the child, unless notification would endanger the child or impede the investigation. All child(ren) should be interviewed privately with documentation addressing time and location. If not notified prior to interviewing child(ren), the parent/caretaker should be notified immediately following the interview, unless this would endanger the child(ren).”
CPS in the schools
Luster also voiced his frustration with the Gulfport School District for allowing the children to be interviewed without supervision.
“The school had no right to let my daughters be interviewed alone by someone claiming to be from CPS,” he said.
Brandon said the CPS interview process is left to the discretion of the school districts.
“Our policy says that chidlren may be interviewed without the parent’s consent if the notification would endanger the child or impede the investigation,” Brandon said. “If the principal or other school official insists on being present, advise school official that they may be subpoenaed to court to testify and have him/her sign a confidentiality statement, which is filed in the case record.”
She said students with IEPs (individual education plans) or special needs fall under the same guidelines of the policy.
“If a school official thinks there is a need for a staff member to be involved, that individual would be subject to being called to testify and must sign a confidentiality statement,” Luster said.
Gulfport School District superintendent Glen East said his schools handle CPS cases by the book.
“We have an agreement with CPS and that agreement is to follow their procedures,” East said.
Child abuse/neglect cases in Mississippi
Brandon said 27,777 cases were reported in 2017. Of those cases, only 26 percent were substantiated. There were 2,364 cases were reported in Harrison County in 2017 and 698 of those cases were substantiated. She said 1,212 children were taken into custody in Harrison County in Fiscal Year 2017.
“MDCPS cases are opened and assigned to a caseworker/supervisor for all substantiated reports,” Brandon said. “If the report is not substantiated, the case is closed and so noted. Cases can either be in-home where the agency works with families to resolve problems but children are not ordered into custody by the courts or it can mean that we have a custody case where a child or children are taken into custody by the state.”
CPS was formed in 2016, making it a separate agency from the Mississippi Department of Human Services. Brandon said investigation policies have not changed since the agency was formed.