Mississippi’s county youth courts will no longer be able to keep case records from parents who are involved in the bureaucratic maze of child-welfare law, thanks to some Coast lawmakers who quietly inserted transparency language into a bill that has now become law.
On its face, House Bill 1213 looks like a measure dedicated solely to expanding the youth court’s ability to empower and expand the roles of CASA Mississippi. Court Appointed Special Advocates, CASA, is an organization of volunteers who help out with complex youth court cases and serve as advocates for children who are stuck in the foster-care system.
However, the bill, which Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law effective July 1, includes two sentences of crucial language tucked into the 34-page document, which gives a parent’s attorney the right to have a copy of any records, documents, reports and investigative files that are part of the parent’s youth court case:
“The attorney for the parent, guardian or custodian of the child, upon request, shall be provided a copy of any record, report or investigation, that is to be considered by the youth court at a hearing. … the attorney may not provide copies or access to another person or entity without prior consent of a court with appropriate jurisdiction.”
Such investigative reports would include those from law enforcement and the state Department of Child Protection Services. However, the law requires the records first be redacted, removing the names of anyone who may have called the child-abuse hotline or whose life would somehow be at risk from disclosure.
This language has little to do with CASA’s work. So what is it doing in the law?
Senator hatches a plan
It was part of a strategic plan by Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, who has helped spearhead a movement to correct what he saw as the youth court and CPS systems injustices exposed in the Sun Herald’s “Fostering Secrets” investigation.
As the window began to close for introducing general bills in the 2017 legislative session, Tindell saw the CASA bill arrive in his committee. At that time, he and other Coast lawmakers had watched as several child-welfare reforms passed both chambers with unanimous votes, only to later be quietly killed in committee.
“Whenever there’s any kind of change,” Tindell said, “people fight against it, and they really don’t know why they fight against it. They just don’t want to change.”
The Council of Youth Court Judges and other opponents had early on begun a campaign to kill the reform bills, Tindell said, by distributing misguided information about what the bills would do.
“All they’d say over and over again was their job was to protect the child’s interests,” said Tindell, who is also an attorney. “Well, that’s not their only job. The parents have rights too. (The judges) just seemed to want to gloss over that.”
Also, one of the main goals of CPS and the youth courts is to reunify children with their families.
So the sophomore senator hatched his plan. He took a sentence from one of the dead reform bills and put it into the CASA bill so it would change nothing on CASA’s end but would make a significant change on the reform end.
When the bill came out of committee, and other legislators began to notice the amendment, Tindell and Rep. Deborah Dixon, D-Raymond, had prepared talking points to counter the resistance they knew would emerge.
‘The perfect vehicle’
After the newly amended bill passed with a majority vote, one lawmaker placed it on the calendar for reconsideration, which essentially places a ticking time bomb on the bill to kill it.
“When the House bill with the CASA provisions came over, it allowed for the CASA workers to receive (the court) records,” Tindell said. “So surely if a CASA worker is entitled to the records, so should an officer of the court who’s an attorney for a parent.”
The opposition fell back upon the often used argument that transparency somehow hurts children, despite studies and anecdotal evidence indicating the opposite is actually true, as reported in “Fostering Secrets.”
“When it came to parents not getting the records, we always heard from local officials that it was to protect the child,” Tindell said. “But once we heard we’re the only state that did that, it threw that argument out the window.”
No other state in the nation, including the American territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, prohibits one side of a youth court case from having its own case files, according to a recent Sun Herald investigation that analyzed the statutes of every state and territory.
With Dixon’s leadership, the bill was removed from the calendar and charted a course to the governor’s desk.
By then, it had picked up too much steam and was too important for any opponents to risk killing it.
“Ultimately, they wouldn’t risk that bill dying, or killing it by vetoing or putting it in committee,” Tindell said. “It really ended up being the perfect vehicle.”
In addition HB1213, other reform bills signed into law were Senate Bill 2673, which provides an oversight panel to prevent guardian ad litem lawyers from abusing their position to overcharge parents; SB2680, which makes it easier for foster children to live with relatives by relaxing the mandate that relatives have state-licensed foster homes; and HB652, which prevents youth court judges from ordering a child taken into custody based solely upon a parent’s positive drug test for marijuana.
Politicians who are making a difference in Mississippi
Mississippi’s child-welfare reform movement has received direct support from several legislators, judges, lawyers and other officials:
- Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport
- Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune
- Rep. Deborah Dixon, D-Raymond
- Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach
- Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis
- Rep. Timmy Ladner, R-Poplarville
- Rep. Steve Hopkins, R-Southaven
- Rep. Greg Haney, R-Gulfport
- Rep. Kathy Sykes, D-Jackson
- Rep. Mark Tullos, R-Raleigh
- Rep. Kabir Karriem, D-Columbus
- Rep. Brad Touchstone, R-Hattiesburg
- Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch
- Sen. Phillip Moran, R-Kiln
- Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula
- Judge Margaret Alfonso, Harrison County Youth Court
- Cindy Alexander, Harrison County Youth Court administrator
- Hancock County Board of Supervisors