State Politics

Lawmakers seek foster care reform following Sun Herald investigation

Two South Mississippi legislators have begun discussing potential reform measures in response to issues exposed in a recent Sun Herald investigation into the state’s foster care system.

State Sen. Sean Tindell of Gulfport and Rep. Richard Bennett of Long Beach each said they plan to meet with other interested parties to brainstorm ways to improve the state’s child protection system before lawmakers enter the 2017 legislative session in January.

“Something needs to be done,” Bennett said.

Sun Herald’s “Fostering Secrets,” which published last week, is a six-part multimedia investigative series into the Mississippi Department of Human Services and the county youth court system. The series presents the stories of several families who say their children have been taken away based on unsubstantiated claims or errors made by DHS’ child services division, which has since rebranded as Mississippi Child Protective Services.

Bennett and Tindell expressed interest in the following issues, among others:

▪  Using certified court reporters to record and transcribe everything discussed during youth court hearings.

▪  Allowing parents and their attorneys to make and keep copies of youth court records.

▪  Allowing public or media access to youth court hearings and records with necessary redaction by giving judges authority to decide on a case-by-case basis when a case should be sealed. This measure would match the procedures used by all other court systems in the U.S.

▪  Requiring CPS caseworkers to record interviews with children.

▪  Requiring CPS caseworkers to wear body cameras when working in the field.

▪  Creating more separation among youth court judges, CPS workers, guardian ad litem attorneys, public defenders and youth court prosecutors. This measure would try to increase the neutrality and objectivity of the youth court.

▪  Establishing a full-time elected youth court judge in Hancock County.

▪  Raising the burden of proof required to remove a child from a home.

▪  Using process servers, typically a sheriff’s deputy, to hand-deliver court summonses to defendants in youth court proceedings. Currently, there is no official way of notifying parents of an upcoming youth court hearing.

▪  Establishing an ombudsman or committee that is independent of CPS and the youth courts to investigate complaints of injustices and allegations of corruption. Whistleblowers, parents and others could contact the ombudsman via a secure phone line or website.

▪  Converting anonymous reporting of child abuse to a system of confidential reporting. This would require complainants to divulge their identities when reporting child abuse. Their identities would remain confidential but would allow law enforcement to investigate instances of malicious, false reporting.

During the 2016 legislative session, Tindell spearheaded a bill that, among other things, established a “parental bill of rights” for defendants in termination of parental rights hearings. The rights include, among others, a parent’s right to counsel and to cross-examine witnesses.

The bill was signed into law but applies only to TPR hearings, which come at the very end of a CPS case. The new reform measures being discussed would focus on the beginning stages of CPS cases, Tindell said.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller

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