Lawmakers aim to reform child-welfare system after Sun Herald series

The Mississippi Department of Human Services is in Jackson.
The Mississippi Department of Human Services is in Jackson. jfitzhugh@sunherald.com File

State lawmakers have so far introduced four bills aimed at reforming the state’s child-welfare system, less than a week into the legislative session that began Jan. 3.

Rep. Timmy Ladner, R-Poplarville, introduced a bill Monday that seeks to prohibit people from making completely anonymous reports of child abuse or child neglect to the state Department of Child Protection Services, formerly known as a division of the Department of Human Services. Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, filed a similar bill Tuesday.

Under the bills, people who report abuse or neglect will have to give their name and other basic information. That already is a requirement for mandated reporters, such as doctors and counselors, who are required to report suspected or observed abuse. Average citizens can still maintain their anonymity when making a report because their information will be kept confidential by the agency. Only when there is suspicion of a malicious false report will someone’s information be disclosed.

The point of the legislation is to curtail the large number of unfounded and false reports CPS receives, some of which are made carelessly or maliciously, Ladner said.

The problem of unfounded reports was scrutinized in the Sun Herald’s “Fostering Secrets,” an investigation into CPS and the youth-court system published in August.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 78.3 percent of all reports of child mistreatment that CPS investigates are ultimately deemed unsubstantiated — meaning the children are not victims of child abuse or neglect. Yet roughly 21 percent of those children are still taken into state custody.

This means one child out of every five investigated in Mississippi and deemed as non-victims is still taken away from his or her parents — a rate that is double the national average.

“We have a bunch of bogus calls that are driving folks crazy,” Ladner said. “We think this will back them off a bit.”

Ladner represents District 93, which includes parts of Hancock, Pearl River and Stone counties.

Rep. Steve Hopkins, R-Southaven, introduced a similar bill last week, House Bill 386. Hopkins represents District 7 in DeSoto County.

Hopkins’ bill also would require people who report child abuse or neglect to give their name, address and phone number, which would be kept confidential by CPS.

Hopkins could not be reached for comment Monday night.

Bennett also introduced a bill that would authorize a parent to request a case be transferred to chancery court during an involuntary termination of parental rights proceeding.

Sen. Sean Tindell has also said he plans to introduce bills concerning the child-welfare system during this legislative session.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller