JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Lawyers asked a federal judge Thursday to appoint an outsider to take over Mississippi's foster care system, saying state government's latest attempt to fix the system's long-running problems has failed.
In a motion filed Thursday in federal court in Jackson, the lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Tom Lee to hold the state in contempt of the latest in a series of agreements to fix the system.
"The state's noncompliance has by now become as routine as a metronome: the state fails to comply with orders to which it earlier agreed; the state issues earnest pledges of compliance, if only given another opportunity; another opportunity is extended; compliance never occurs. This process is repeated endlessly," lawyers said in the motion.
Gov. Phil Bryant said the state will fight the move.
"We're going to vigorously defend it," Bryant said. "We believe we're in compliance.
The Department of Child Protective Services has touted improvements, including cutting the number of children in its custody by 10 percent over the past year and increasing adoptions. But the plaintiffs say the state's "blatant noncompliance" is black and white, as caseload figures for social workers again rise above targeted levels.
By the end of last year, 90 percent of caseworkers were supposed to have caseloads below targeted levels, but an outside consultant aiding the state said that only 61 percent of caseworkers did. The problems were particularly severe on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In Harrison and Hancock counties, only 23 percent of social workers had caseloads that met targeted levels. The plaintiffs say the overall caseload situation has gotten worse this year, not better, falling to 52 percent in May.
"The caseload compliance requirement is a vital measure by which defendants can produce better outcomes for children, protect them from harm and provide necessary services," wrote Marcia Lowry, the lawyer who's been suing the state for 14 years on behalf of a girl known only as Olivia Y.
Lowry writes that the plaintiffs have lost confidence in current Child Protective Services chief Jess Dickinson. He left the state Supreme Court and took over the agency in September, replacing another former justice, David Chandler.
"It is apparent that Commissioner Dickinson is simply not capable of operating the agency in such a way to achieve compliance with the court's requirements," Lowry wrote.
She cited concerns about the departures of three senior managers, saying "the state's entire management structure is collapsing."
Lawmakers separated the foster care system from the Department of Human Services, but that caused trouble accessing federal funding. Lawmakers decided this year to partially re-merge the departments and appropriated money to fill the deficit, but Dickinson said the department would impose a hiring freeze. It's unclear if that's contributing to rising caseloads.
Spokeswoman Lea Anne Brandon says the department is confident it's moving in the right direction to protect children.
"We disagree with the plaintiff's assertions and will continue working diligently each day to care for the thousands of abused and neglected children entrusted into our custody for protection," Brandon said in a statement.
But Lowry argues that it's not about intent, but actual performance. The judge has long appeared reluctant to strip control from the state, which helped push the plaintiffs into at least six separate agreements with the state. In Thursday's motion, Lowry argues that "the dire circumstances of this case warrant the appointment of a receiver."
"At the evidentiary hearing, plaintiffs expect to prove through testimony from former senior officials at MDCPS that defendants are headed on a downward trajectory, and that the many improvements made during the past two years have been abandoned by the current administration," the motion said.