State owes vulnerable children its best

Published 9:07 pm Saturday, January 9, 2016

Mississippi’s child welfare system is in bad shape, according to a new report that says the state is backsliding in efforts to meet settlement obligations in a federal lawsuit, according to The Associated Press.

“It’s as if these children are out there in a forest or a desert with no kind of structure around them,” Marcia Lowry, one of the lead lawyers for plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said.

Gov. Phil Bryant in December named former Supreme Court Justice David Chandler to lead the Division of Family and Children’s Services, ordering the unit of the Department of Human Services to report directly to him, according to AP. He also pledged to increase funding.

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“The governor understands that the system is broken and that drastic improvement must be made to avoid federal takeover,” spokesman Knox Chandler wrote in an email. “Justice Chandler and Gov. Bryant will work tirelessly to ensure Mississippi’s foster children receive the best care and comfort. They deserve nothing less.”

How the state got to this point is likely due to a variety of reasons — lack of funding, lack of staff to monitor the well-being of the hundreds of children in foster care and misplaced priorities.

The failing system is one I’m very familiar with. Before getting into newspapers, I was a Children’s Protective Services caseworker in Texas. At one point, I traveled with an 8-month-old foster child to an adoptive family in Mississippi. The lack of communication and cooperation between the two states was appalling, especially considering a child the state of Texas was responsible for was being taken to Mississippi.

I arrived at the family’s home expecting to meet a caseworker for the state of Mississippi. But there was only the adoptive family, who was excited to offer their home to a child who had been abused by his mother. I tried in vain to get in touch with someone with children’s services in Mississippi. I assumed there was some paperwork to be completed, but Mississippi never sent a caseworker, and I had no choice but to leave the child with the family. A Mississippi caseworker had interviewed the family and conducted a home study.

Thankfully, the child was well cared for and there were no problems. But there easily could have been. Though I had fulfilled any obligations I had to the child as a caseworker, I never felt good about leaving the child without first speaking with a caseworker.

If that experience is indicative of the system in Mississippi, there’s much work to do.

The recently released report delves deeply into the case of an infant who died five days after entering state custody in early 2015. The infant died while sleeping in bed with the foster parents, a prohibited practice, AP reported.

“The foster parents’ own child had died the same way earlier, and complaints about their care for two sets of foster children were received in 2014. The department placed the infant without inspecting the foster parents’ new home and didn’t know the foster mother had lost her job and had been convicted of a crime. The report also faulted the state for how it handled the investigation afterward, saying files in the case were difficult to follow and a death review panel made recommendations without documenting how they would prevent a recurrence,” AP reported.

Abused or neglected children who end up in the state’s custody depend entirely on underpaid and overworked caseworkers and foster parents who sometimes treat the children as financial resources. It’s not an ideal system, but one that must exist since people will abandon, abuse or neglect children. Those children have to go somewhere.

The state is obligated to provide the best care possible for these children. Sure, the law requires it and the federal government demands it, but there is also a moral obligation to do better. And we can do better. We must do better. These children need and deserve it.


Luke Horton is the publisher of The Daily Leader.