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Feds could take over Mississippi’s foster care after report shows children still abused, neglected

How a child makes their way through the Mississippi DHS system

Most of the complaints about child neglect within the Mississippi Department of Human Services system are deemed unfounded, yet there are thousands of children and families affected by Mississippi’s child welfare system. We show you a child’s path
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Most of the complaints about child neglect within the Mississippi Department of Human Services system are deemed unfounded, yet there are thousands of children and families affected by Mississippi’s child welfare system. We show you a child’s path

The court monitor in the long-running federal lawsuit against Mississippi over its foster care system released a report Tuesday saying children in state custody are still abused and neglected.

According to the report, 95 children in the custody of Child Protective Services were victims of abuse or neglect by their caregivers last year, which is more than the three times the agreed-upon standard.

About half of Mississippi’s caseworkers have workloads that are above capacity, the report said, despite a pledge that nearly all caseworkers would maintain an agreed-upon workload.

The report said the state bungled some abuse and neglect investigations.

Mississippi’s continued failure to meet court-ordered reforms puts the state at risk of a court-appointed receiver taking over the state’s child welfare system.

CPS acknowledged it needs more time and money to meet the settlement terms of a federal lawsuit, but a spokeswoman said the agency is making improvements.

State has ‘abandoned its foster children’

CPS regularly investigates claims of abuse or neglect by foster parents and residential facility staff. There were 10 claims in 2018 that the agency deemed unsubstantiated. But according to the report there was enough information to to substantiate the abuse or neglect.

Here are some of those cases, as described by the report:

  • Police arrested a 16-year-old foster child for “breaking into cars and stealing handguns while the foster mother worked the night shift.” The 16-year-old brought stolen guns and marijuana home, where there were two other foster children living. There were pictures of the foster children having access to guns and marijuana and a police officer said: “(There is) no way these boys were being properly supervised.”
  • A foster mother allegedly slapped a girl in the face and pulled her hair. The foster mother told a CPS investigator the girl “put a spell on her without using words” and called her “evil” and a “devil worshipper.” The foster home was only shut down five months later, when CPS substantiated a different allegation of abuse — this time that the foster mother had choked another child in her care.
  • CPS did not close a foster home where the foster mother allegedly made a 5-year-old child squat against the wall while in his underwear or naked as a form or punishment. The foster mother admitted to the “wall sits,” but denied a claim that she put socks in his throat when he cried.

The report said just over 1 percent of the more than 8,000 children in custody of CPS during 2018 were abused or neglected. However, CPS had agreed not to allow the rate of abuse to exceed 0.33 percent.

According to the report, some of the abuse included the following:

  • A foster father sexually abused a 3-year-old girl, touching her in her vaginal area.
  • A 9-year-old child with developmental disabilities said he was “whooped” by his foster mother with a belt. The mother claimed she hit him for “peeing and pooping” and only used her hand, but a physician found a belt buckle pattern on the child’s leg.
  • A foster father made his 16-year-old daughter care for multiple foster children, including a 5-year-old who came to school for weeks in the same dirty clothes and smelling of urine. The child was hungry, tried to steal food from the teacher’s desk, and had scratches on his face and a wound on his neck.
  • A foster mother whipped a 6-year-old girl with a belt, causing bruising across her body. She also failed to give the girl medication for her sickle cell disease.

About half of Mississippi’s caseworkers have workloads that are above capacity, the report said, despite a pledge that nearly all caseworkers would maintain an agreed-upon workload.

Still, CPS spokeswoman Lea Anne Brandon said the problem used to be much worse. According to Brandon, some caseworkers in 2004 were juggling more than 200 cases at a time, but now the statewide average is 14 cases per worker.

There were some positives in the report, including CPS meeting education and training requirements. The report also found that CPS licensed 432 new non-relative foster homes in 2018, exceeding its goal of 400.

Overall, the report said Mississippi met only 37 of 113 court-ordered requirements in 2018, the first year the state was being measured under a revised settlement agreement in the “Olivia Y” lawsuit.

CPS did not provide data for 18 of those requirements and the court monitor was unable to verify the data submitted by CPS for another 23 requirements, the report said.

Marcia Robinson Lowry is the executive director of A Better Childhood and the co-lead counsel in the Olivia Y lawsuit.

“What this report tells us is that the state of Mississippi has essentially abandoned its foster children,” Lowry said.

Gov. Phil Bryant in a statement Tuesday said: ”Any case of child abuse or neglect is reprehensible in my eyes and requires immediate attention.

“We have made tremendous strides in recent years improving Mississippi’s child protective services, but we will not rest until it’s the best in the nation,” Bryant said. “Our children deserve nothing less, and I will continue to fight for changes and resources that will make a positive difference in our foster care system.”

Alleged sexual assault was not investigated

CPS received more than 36,000 reports of child abuse, neglect, exploitation or risk in 2018, the report said.

A subsection of CPS is responsible for reviewing the reports and screening out reports that do not meet the criteria maltreatment.

In 2018, they screened out 7,343 reports, the report said.

The court monitor randomly pulled 100 of the screened out reports and determined that 91 were appropriately screened out. However, the report said nine should have been investigated — but were not.

That includes the case of a 13-year-old girl who alleged she was sexually assaulted by her foster mother’s teenage son two years prior. According to the report, the girl also alleged the foster mother would beat her with a wide extension cord, making her bleed.

According to the report, CPS incorrectly marked the allegations as a duplicate report and the alleged abuse was not investigated.

It’s unclear how many other claims of abuse or neglect were improperly screened out and not investigated.

What is the Oliva Y lawsuit?

Olivia Y was one of eight children named as plaintiffs — but representing many others — abused because Mississippi failed to protect children in foster care.

Olivia in 2003 was a 3½-year-old girl in Forrest County who entered state custody weighing only 22 pounds. Despite being malnourished, she was listed as having no problems and was not given a medical exam.

She was given five separate foster placements in the first three months of her entry into DFCS custody. DFCS placed Olivia in her aunt’s house, claiming a background check on adults in the house had been done, but she was removed after the agency learned the aunt’s son was a convicted rapist.

After being placed in a shelter, Olivia was malnourished, suffering depression and showed signs of sexual abuse, but DFCS, according to the original complaint, made no effort to perform a thorough medical exam to determine sexual abuse or the extent of her injuries or find her a permanent home even after six months in state custody. DFCS at the time still listed as its ultimate goal to reunite Olivia with her mother who had neglected her.

The lawsuit — on behalf of thousands of children who go through the Mississippi system — was filed in federal court in 2004. A settlement was reached in 2008, but the state has since failed to comply with the terms of the settlement.

By the numbers

According to the report, CPS served 8,287 children in 2018. There were 5,577 in CPS custody at the beginning of the year, the report said, and 4,811 in custody at the end of the year.

Of those 4,811 children in custody, about 45 percent were 6 years old or younger, the report said.

About a fourth of the children were ages 7 to 11, the report said, and another fourth were ages 12 to 17. The remaining 4 percent were 18 years old or older.

The children were evenly split by gender, the report said. About 54 percent were white and 37 percent were African American, and most the remaining children were either mixed race or lacked demographic information.

Nine out of 10 children lived in a family settings, the report said, with most in either foster families or with relatives.

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