Hancock County

Hancock County focusing on foster care 'crisis'

BAY ST. LOUIS -- "We have a crisis," state Rep. David Baria said in his opening remarks at the Hancock County Youth Court Task Force meeting Monday night.

A large crowd attended the meeting at the county's government annex building to voice their concerns and try to find solutions to having the worst per-capita foster care rate in Mississippi.

In December, the county had 458 children in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, accounting for 10 percent of DHS's wards statewide.

The newly created task force, spearheaded by Baria, is made up of state and local officials trying to find the underlying cause of the foster care problem.

But that goal may have widened in scope after Monday's meeting.

Chancery Judge Sandy Steckler said the task force should be "totally independent" and not answerable to any agency.

The task force members decided to organize into five different committees: coordination of services, statistics, parent representation, public comment and Hancock County Youth Court review.

Sheriff Ricky Adam said the task force should just focus on researching the cause of the high numbers.

"That's going to be a hard enough mission in itself," he said. "If we can accomplish that, that will be something."

Many making public comments said the DHS system in Hancock County is broken.

Attorney Kelly Walker criticized youth court officials for acting too fast to take children into state custody.

She said Hancock County is the only county that doesn't seek to house children with other family members when parental rights are suspended or terminated.

Walker said instead of allowing the child to stay with their grandparents, the court "rips kids away" and places them in foster care if a parent fails a drug test.

The sheriff supported Walker's claim.

"When we go to seize a child, we don't even have the option to give them to the grandparents," Adam said.

Dozens of parents voiced the same concern.

Bay St. Louis resident Mindy Stigler said her daughter was seized from her in 2013, and despite having completed all of DHS's requirements to regain custody, her daughter is stuck in Michigan.

Stigler said DHS required her to pass two random drug screens before she could visit her child. She said she has passed nine times and still hasn't been granted a visit.

The task force's next meeting is at 4 p.m. Jan. 23.