Hancock County

Youth Court primary issue for Hancock County supervisors

A sign outside the Hancock County Youth Court courtroom in the G.M. Russell Youth Court Center in Bay St. Louis.
A sign outside the Hancock County Youth Court courtroom in the G.M. Russell Youth Court Center in Bay St. Louis. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

The Hancock County Board of Supervisors plans to further discuss youth court issues with Rep. David Baria, D-Miss., at a meeting on Monday.

Baria said he plans to discuss the creation of a county court system to replace Hancock County’s current youth court system, which is under the umbrella of Chancery Court.

In early 2015, Baria spearheaded the formation of the Hancock County Youth Court Task Force 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.

The task force released its final report in July with 16 findings and recommendations on how to correct the high number of children in state custody.

“We’re going to explain our report and encourage them to look at our findings and conclusions, especially the recommendation to create a county court system,” Baria said.

A county court system would hear both criminal and civil cases, providing relief for the circuit court and justice court. It would also provide an elected judge to preside over youth court hearings. Currently, the county youth court uses “referees,” who act as judges.

Youth courts serve as the judicial arm of the Child Protective Services system, formerly known as the Department of Human Services. Both CPS and the youth court were the focus of a recent Sun Herald investigation that uncovered audio recordings, court records and thousands of pages of documents related to allegations of children being taken away in error or on unsubstantiated claims of child abuse.

Some of the task force’s findings contradicted findings from the state Legislature. Notably, the report blamed the problem on drug addiction, as court officials have done since discussions on the foster care crisis began in December 2014.