Lawyers seek outside takeover of Mississippi foster care

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.

Posted: May 31, 2018 8:23 PM

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.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 16322

Reported Deaths: 782
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds106626
Lauderdale76068
Madison75727
Neshoba72244
Jones68632
Scott66212
Forrest59239
DeSoto5598
Leake45412
Rankin4538
Holmes44130
Copiah3254
Jackson30914
Attala30718
Yazoo2914
Newton2834
Lincoln27829
Leflore27336
Oktibbeha26714
Monroe26725
Harrison2657
Lamar2485
Lowndes2419
Wayne2353
Pearl River21231
Pike20511
Adams20216
Washington1947
Noxubee1936
Warren19110
Lee1857
Covington1772
Jasper1664
Bolivar16611
Clarke15519
Smith15311
Lafayette1504
Kemper14911
Chickasaw14014
Coahoma1284
Winston1221
Clay1184
Carroll11611
Marion1169
Claiborne1145
Lawrence1081
Simpson1040
Grenada1003
Yalobusha976
Sunflower933
Itawamba907
Hancock9012
Tate881
Union867
Montgomery861
Panola853
Marshall853
Wilkinson859
Jefferson Davis813
Tippah7611
Webster673
Calhoun674
Amite651
Walthall630
Humphreys607
Tunica563
Prentiss533
Perry513
Choctaw482
Pontotoc453
Jefferson421
Tishomingo350
Greene331
Stone320
Quitman310
Tallahatchie301
Franklin292
George281
Alcorn191
Benton140
Sharkey70
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 18554

Reported Deaths: 651
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Mobile2284118
Jefferson1884103
Montgomery182343
Tuscaloosa82216
Marshall7059
Franklin5788
Lee55834
Shelby52220
Tallapoosa43266
Butler41918
Walker3812
Elmore3729
Chambers35926
Madison3464
Morgan2981
Unassigned2972
Baldwin2929
Dallas2873
Etowah26212
Lowndes25912
DeKalb2573
Autauga2395
Coffee2391
Sumter2287
Houston2265
Bullock2156
Pike2080
Colbert1872
Hale1799
Russell1770
Barbour1771
Marengo1746
Lauderdale1692
Calhoun1653
Wilcox1547
Choctaw15310
Cullman1501
Clarke1492
St. Clair1311
Randolph1287
Marion12411
Dale1230
Pickens1215
Talladega1175
Limestone1080
Chilton1051
Greene954
Winston910
Macon874
Jackson833
Henry812
Covington811
Crenshaw783
Bibb761
Escambia753
Washington726
Blount631
Lawrence510
Monroe452
Geneva440
Perry420
Conecuh411
Coosa401
Cherokee383
Clay282
Lamar260
Fayette160
Cleburne151
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