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Infant's 2015 death underlines worsening Mississippi DHS failures, court monitor says

By WESLEY MULLER

wmuller@sunherald.com

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WESLEY MULLER/SUN HERALD 
Hancock County Department of Human Services
WESLEY MULLER/SUN HERALD Hancock County Department of Human Services

An infant who died last year while in custody of the Mississippi Department of Human Services illustrates systemic failures in the state's foster care system. That's the finding in a report released Wednesday by the federal court monitor in the Olivia Y. case.

The infant died in the first quarter of 2015, within five days after being placed in DHS custody. The report did not identify the county but indicates the baby was placed in a foster home in a region that has experienced severe staffing shortages along with a steep increase in the number of children in custody.

Although the child's foster home was licensed, it had not been monitored by DHS' Division of Family and Children Services as required.

"At the time of placement, no one from DFCS had ever set foot in the resource home, and unbeknownst to DFCS, the resource mother recently had been convicted of a criminal offense and had lost her job," the report said.

According to the report, another infant died in the same home under circumstances similar to the 2015 death -- by sleeping in the same bed as the foster parents.

The child's death points to systemic issues, including a recent and rapid growth in the number of children in DHS custody, the report said.

The number of children in DHS custody "has risen precipitously in recent years," the report said, up 26 percent in the two years from June 30, 2013, to June 30, 2015.

As a result of the Olivia Y. v. Barbour lawsuit, DHS has been under a federal consent decree since 2008 but has not been able to satisfy all of its requirements.

The report said the state's compliance with court-ordered requirements has worsened, noting its failure to maintain a sufficient number of properly licensed and supervised foster homes, and a failure to have in place "an adequate number of qualified, trained and properly supervised caseworkers who are not overburdened by excessive caseloads."

The monitor's report includes the results of a review of medical care, in which it found, among other things, only 2 percent of children received a comprehensive health exam within 30 days of entering state custody.

"The facts could not be more clear," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, a nonprofit advocacy organization, and lead attorney for the foster children. "The foster care system in Mississippi is well beyond crisis.

"Children who are in foster care because they have already been abused or neglected are in continuing danger from the state itself."

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