Another Hancock youth court official resigns — the sixth in six months

Another Hancock County Youth Court official has resigned. She’s the sixth in less than six months to leave.

Hancock County Youth Court Judge Elise Deano advised the Hancock County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that Stephanie Stewart tendered her resignation as youth court administrator after having held the position for five months. Stewart is the third Hancock County youth court administrator to resign since the end of 2015 and the sixth employee to leave since September.

The youth court administrator serves as second in command to the judge.

In September, three youth court officials resigned and two new-hires quit their posts. The resignations came from Administrator D’Angela Brenza, Drug Court Administrator Chere Hayward and Clerk Michelle Monti.

The new-hires quit less than a month into the job, though it’s unclear what positions they held, county supervisors said at the time.

In an interview Wednesday, Supervisor Blaine LaFontaine said he is concerned about the high turnover rate within the county’s youth court.

He said Deano did not give a reason for Stewart’s resignation but asked the board to consider hiring extra help because of the youth court’s large workload.

LaFontaine noted the comprehensive study by PEER — the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review — highlighted high turnover rates within Hancock County’s Department of Human Services office — now known as Child Protection Services — as a contributing factor to the county’s high foster-care rate. However, he said, it now seems it is the youth court struggling to keep staff.

“The only high turnover and inconsistencies we’ve seen have been within the youth court itself,” LaFontaine said in an interview Wednesday.

CPS investigates reports of child abuse and neglect, then conveys its findings to a county youth court, which decides where the children should live. Both CPS and the youth court in Hancock County were the focus of a Sun Herald investigation in August that uncovered audio recordings, court records and thousands of pages of documents related to allegations of children being taken away based on forged records and unsubstantiated claims of child abuse.

As a result of the Sun Herald’s investigation, state lawmakers introduced more than two dozen reform bills in the legislative session beginning in January. A few of those bills remain alive: HB652, SB2369, SB2520 and SB2821.

LaFontaine said the supervisors have not spoken directly with Stewart but they believe they could help the situation if they were included in the hiring process.

“One of the things we told Judge Deano is we felt that if we could be granted some authority to contribute (to the hiring process), that we could help stabilize a broken system,” he said.

Deano could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller