Hancock County

Hancock supervisors not convinced foster care crisis is over

Judge Sandy Steckler told Hancock County supervisors on Thursday at the foster care system is not in crisis.
Judge Sandy Steckler told Hancock County supervisors on Thursday at the foster care system is not in crisis. ttisbell@sunherald.com/File

Chancery Judge Sandy Steckler tried to reassure Hancock County supervisors the Youth Court and Child Protective Services are not in a crisis.

“I’ve been reading the papers and listening to the word on the street and it sounds like the sky is falling over here,” he said Thursday at the Board of Supervisors meeting. “But frankly, nothing is further from the truth.”

A Sun Herald series in August detailed a number of problems with Mississippi’s foster care system, including parents who said their children were taken from them for no good reason.

“I’ve never run into anybody ... who thought their children should have been taken,” Steckler said.

He said none of the cases that removed children was overturned, which he said is proof the decisions were just.

However, the Sun Herald reported on two cases in which children were returned to their parents after a court determined they had been taken unlawfully.

Board President Blaine LaFontaine said Steckler’s appearance before the board was a positive step but also that county officials had an obligation to investigate allegations they hear.

“We hear and see different things,” he said. “We know these people; they are part of our community.”

He said it was their duty to investigate, to keep the public’s trust.

Youth Court referee Elise Deano said Child Protective Services workers investigate many allegations that are unfounded but those are never made public because they are unfounded.

“Most of the time I never even see them because they are unsubstantiated allegations,” she said.

LaFontaine also said there was a “void of communication with the Youth Court,” citing as example how little the supervisors knew about recent staff changes there.

Deano said the administrator simply left for another job, another staffer accepted a job and then wanted a higher rate of pay and so never started, and a third quit via text message after one day.

Steckler said the number of CPS caseworkers has increased from 4.5 in 2010 to “about 35 currently.” He said the number of children in CPS custody has decreased from a peak of 450 to 336. There are about 5,500 in custody statewide, CPS Director David Chandler said last week.

District 1 Supervisor David Yarborough said he appreciated Steckler’s candor, but said Youth Court officials haven’t always been forthcoming.

“You’ve never been as open,” he said. “It should have happened sooner. We’ve asked things before, but you weren’t so open before.”

Steckler left supervisors a letter and information packed about the improvements made.

“It’s still a big problem,” he said, “but certainly it’s turned around.”

Paul Hampton: 228-896-2330, @JPaulHampton

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