HANCOCK COUNTY -- Several internal factors within Hancock County's Youth Court and its Department of Human Services office, rather than drug use or child abuse, appear to be the primary causes of the county's high number of children in state custody, according to a report by the state Legislature's investigative committee.
PEER is the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review. It found that irregular policies in Hancock County Youth Court as well as problems with DHS staffing and heavy workload rates have contributed to the record high number of children in custody.
PEER noted the number of Hancock County children in state custody increased 148 percent in the last five years, making it the state's highest per-capita rate as of December.
The committee pointed out the workloads of 43 percent of Hancock County's caseworkers and 48 percent of its supervisors exceeded the standards set by both DHS policy and the so-called Olivia Y. federal consent decree. The decree is the result of a 2004 lawsuit that made sweeping changes to DHS after allegations that Mississippi's foster-care system was failing to adequately protect children in its custody.
The Hancock County Youth Court's risk-reduction policies for drug testing, investigations by court intake personnel and visitation "differ significantly from those of other counties within the state," the report said.
PEER considered external factors identified by Hancock County community stakeholders, including illicit drug use, a transient population and single-parent households.
The report concluded that although those external factors may contribute to the problem, "no causal relationships were established by the data."
"The high rate of child maltreatment in Hancock County does not explain the disproportionate number of children in DHS's custody in that county," the report said.
PEER supported that finding by comparing Hancock County to other counties with similar child-maltreatment rates, including Tippah, Yalobusha, Pike and Pontotoc.
Those counties had similar child-abuse rates but "substantially fewer" children in custody, PEER concluded.
State Sen. Kelvin Butler of McComb, a PEER committee member, said the comparative data was a key finding in the report.
"When you look at it and then compare it to other counties and find out its still high, it almost becomes confusing," he said. "Something's going on. That's what we were trying to find out."
Hancock County Sheriff Ricky Adam, who launched an investigation into the county's DHS office in February after receiving several complaints of caseworkers forging or altering documents, said he appreciates the effort PEER put into the study.
"I think they came close to hitting it on the head," he said. "Maybe this will get things stirred up to where people can fix it."
However, Chancery Judge Sandy Steckler, who supervises the Hancock County Youth Court and serves on the county's Youth Court Task Force, said he disagreed with PEER's findings in a response he wrote to the committee.
"Your report questions the wisdom of the more aggressive stance on drug testing in Hancock County, but our records show 81 (percent) of those being tested are positive," Steckler wrote.
PEER, however, conducted a comprehensive review of drug use in Hancock County and failed to find causal data to support the relationship between drugs and the high number of children in custody.
The sheriff said his annual drug-arrest statistics also fail to show Hancock County has a worse drug problem than other counties.
PEER did not include any investigations of fraud or forgery allegations in its review.