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Foster care fix? Hancock County considers new youth court system

ROGELIO V. SOLIS/ASSOCIATED PRESSRep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, raises and issue regarding proposed resolutions for permanent rules in the House for the 2016-2020 term, at the Capitol in Jackson, on Jan. 28.
ROGELIO V. SOLIS/ASSOCIATED PRESSRep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, raises and issue regarding proposed resolutions for permanent rules in the House for the 2016-2020 term, at the Capitol in Jackson, on Jan. 28. AP

Looking for ways to relieve the county’s overburdened foster care system, Hancock County supervisors are considering the possibility of creating a county court system.

State Rep. David Baria addressed the Board of Supervisors at Monday’s meeting, sharing some of the findings and recommendations of the Hancock County Youth Court Task Force, which Baria helped form in early 2015 in response to the foster-care crisis.

At that time, Hancock County had the highest per-capita rate of children in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, a rate 10 times higher than any other county in the state. Though the numbers have begun to improve, the county’s foster care rate still holds the top position.

Mississippi’s county youth courts hear child protection and child delinquency cases. They work closely with, but are separate from, the newly formed Mississippi Child Protective Services, which replaced DHS’ Division of Family & Children Services.

In Hancock and most other counties, the youth court operates under the umbrella of chancery court and uses “referees” who are trained attorneys who act as judges.

A county court system would instead administer the youth court with a full-time elected judge. It would also provide relief for the circuit, chancery and justice courts by handling criminal and civil cases, though it may require two judges. Currently, Hancock’s youth court uses two part-time judges who often work full-time hours.

The county would have to fund the new court system, but Baria said the cost would be lower per individual case, eventually saving money in the long-run.

In its final report released in July, the task force found that a county court model would be more equitable for Hancock County, a conclusion also reached by the State Legislature’s PEER committee — Performance Evaluation Expenditure & Review — which released a study on the county’s foster-care crisis in 2015.

Chancery Clerk Tim Kellar expressed concern Monday about the time required to establish a new court system, but Baria said it could actually be completed a lot faster than one would think.

“David, aren’t y’all looking at a two- or three-year process?” Kellar said.

If the supervisors passed a resolution, it would head to the governor’s office for approval, and the process could take only about six months, Baria said.

Statewide, there are 21 counties, including Harrison and Jackson, that have a county court.

Aside from the formation of a county court, the task force recommends the supervisors increase community drug and alcohol rehab services, explore transportation options for low-income families in the CPS system and hire additional attorneys to represent parent defendants in youth court.

Board President Blaine Lafontaine asked Baria if he plans to work on legislation to reform the foster care system.

Referring to the Sun Herald’s investigation of DHS, Baria said he thinks children are sometimes taken from their families too quickly and parents are overburdened with too many reunification requirements.

The state will likely see legislative efforts to make the system more transparent such as giving parents and their attorneys copies of their youth court records, he said.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller

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