Other Opinions

Hancock County foster care has improved

This letter is written in response to the Sept. 18, 2016, editorial and recent news stories regarding Hancock County foster care. I appreciate the opportunity to clarify the issues and to set the record straight.

The good citizens of Hancock County have much to celebrate because the number of children in protective custody is declining and the quality of care is improving. There is still much to be accomplished, but much good work is being done.

First, it should be clarified as to who is responsible for what.

Foster care responsibility

Foster Care and relative placement of children in protective custody is the responsibility of the Mississippi Child Protective Services, formerly known as the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

Gov. Phil Bryant recently appointed David Chandler as the executive director of CPS. Within the laws passed by the Mississippi Legislature, CPS has total autonomy over the foster care system in this state. Accordingly, foster care and all of the rules, regulations, procedures, etc. originate exclusively from and are controlled by the executive branch of government.

As a chancellor, I am in the judicial branch of government and have no jurisdiction, control or responsibility for the foster care program, and neither does the Youth Court. I have the exclusive direct oversight and control of the Hancock County Youth Court. In this capacity, I have hired Elise Deano as the Hancock County Youth Court referee (judge). These actions were by court order sent to the Hancock County Board of Supervisors when she replaced the previous referee.

The Hancock County Board of Supervisors has the responsibility to fully fund the Youth Court of Hancock County through taxes it has been collecting from the citizens for such governmental functions. The board has no oversight responsibility or authority over the employees or operation of the Youth Court and no authority or control over the foster care program, which is funded by the state.

How children get into CPS custody

Mississippi law requires anyone knowing of abuse or neglect of children to immediately report it to the Mississippi Department of Human Services, now called Mississippi Child Protective Services. Typically, the reports are made to CPS by law enforcement, schools, hospitals, day-care services, relatives or neighbors.

When the case worker assessment requires the child to be taken immediately, an investigation is made by CPS. When that occurs, CPS temporarily places the child with a relative, in foster care or in a shelter. Regardless of where CPS has placed the child, he or she is still officially in CPS custody.

If and when a case finally makes its way to the Youth Court for consideration, the Youth Court has only two options: Return the child to the parent or the child remains within the control of CPS. The Youth Court, by law, has no other options.

The Katrina crisis

Much of Hancock County was decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Homes and jobs were lost and family units disrupted. The use of illegal drugs soared. The small DHS staff operated out of a Katrina trailer, which was inaccessible when it rained. The case workers were overwhelmed by the rapidly growing reports of abused and neglected children, which began to spiral out of control.

As of 2015, there were 460 children in DHS protective custody. To put that in perspective, there are only about eight counties in the state with more than 100 children in CPS custody.

The problems with the foster care system were not just the number of children, but the inability to provide proper care, placement, control and monitoring of the children in foster care. I brought the matter to the attention of the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, William Waller. He asked that I meet with other state officials to inform them of our situation and work with them to find solutions.

I, along with many people from Hancock County, continued to push the state officials to increase the size of the DHS staff and facilities. Several years of meetings with state officials in Jackson regarding the crisis resulted in a gradual increase of services to Hancock County, but the number of children in DHS custody continued to climb even higher.

A plan to save the children emerged

Accordingly, in December 2014, I held a multidisciplinary meeting in Hancock County in hopes of finding answers, improving the system and building an effective team to help the affected families. As a result of that day-long meeting, an all-volunteer Hancock County Youth Court Task Force was formed, with Rep. David Baria serving as its chair.

The Task Force consisted of representatives from the court, DHS, schools, health care, Board of Supervisors, CASA and law enforcement. Our voices were finally heard and DHS/CPS services began to improve dramatically. I also served as a volunteer on the Task Force. The report of the Task Force was finalized on July 15, 2016, and distributed to DHS/CPS, the Youth Court, the media, the Board of Supervisors and others.

Those Task Force volunteer efforts in Hancock County have been highly influential in bringing about a re-organization of the foster care system in the county.

First: CPS has increased the number of case workers in Hancock County from 4.5 to approximately 35, plus support staff and supervisors. CPS has moved from the FEMA trailer where they had been working since Hurricane Katrina into a new building, complete with new equipment, computer programs, better training and better supervision. Many of the new CPS employees relocated to Hancock County, bringing with them income and housing opportunities, resulting in more money coming into the county and its tax base.

Second: At my request, the Hancock County Board of Supervisors established a shelter for children who have to be in protective custody and temporarily without available relative placement or foster care. Providing this shelter reduced the payments to other counties that would house Hancock County children in protective custody and kept children close to home, school, counselors and relatives. The Board of Supervisors should be congratulated for this important achievement.

Third: The Task Force report highlighted that the primary reason for so many Hancock County children going into protective custody is the use of illegal drugs by the parent(s) and/or guardian(s) of the children. An actual count of all the Youth Court files shows that 75 percent of these cases involve a drug abuse of various substances in the home (of drugs more serious than marijuana), with many of the children also testing positive for the same substance.

Fourth: The Youth Court has hired an attorney to represent indigent parents in Youth Court cases. The cost is paid, for the most part, by grants, reducing the cost to the county.

Fifth: Thanks to the excellent work of our Hancock County Youth Court referee, Elise Deano, there is now a drug court for the children who are addicted to illegal drugs. Hancock County Youth Court has also just recently been approved as a pilot program for a drug court for the parents of children in protective custody to help them with rehabilitation. All of the drug court costs are paid by grants from state and national foundations. The grant monies and drug court costs are run through the county budget process for accountability purposes, but the county does not expend any taxpayer money for the operation of the drug courts. The Hancock County Drug Court has brought, and continues to bring, money into the county. There is also an effort underway to provide education to prevent drug abuse rather than merely rehabilitation after addiction.

Lastly, our group of volunteers is interested in establishing mentor groups to help the parents accomplish the challenges they face to comply with CPS and court orders and help them rehabilitate from substance abuse so they can be reunited with their children in a timely manner. We also have many other proposals to help improve the entire process for both the Youth Court and CPS.

Proof of success

As a result of all the foregoing improvements, the number of Hancock County children placed in protective custody has finally stopped climbing and has fallen from 460 to 336. There is still much room for improvement, but Hancock County is moving rapidly in the right direction.

The many positive changes that have recently been made in Hancock County reversing the trend of maltreatment of children is the real news. Let us not dwell on divisive and petty disputes between the decision makers.

Good news has been made in Hancock County. I invite the Sun Herald to get on board with us in a positive way to help make the needed changes in the quality of child care in Hancock County.