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Lincoln County-supported children’s shelter closes

The only shelter for at-risk children south of Jackson closed recently after the state stopped referring children for treatment there, a shelter official told supervisors recently.

Tammy Miller, a regional director with Canopy Children’s Solutions, told the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors the South Mississippi Children’s Center in Hattiesburg shut its doors Sept. 28, because the state is “moving in a different direction” for children in need of out-of-home care. Miller paid a personal visit to supervisors to thank them for years of financial support to the center.

“I wanted to thank you personally, not just send a letter,” Miller said. “But our last day was Friday — there’s a push to get away from group care and move toward foster homes.”

Miller said the shelter is closing because of national changes in out-of-home care for children brought on by the Family First Prevention Services Act, a new federal law that reforms child welfare funding. The act aims to put more muscle into preventing child abuse or neglect — a good thing, Miller said — but it also dries up funding for group homes like the children’s center and urges states to reduce the number of children placed in congregate care.

Tonya Rogillio, deputy commissioner for child welfare with the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, said new rules under the act that change how congregate care facilities operate would be phased in over the next two years.

“It is completely the decision of the private provider agencies as to whether they choose to make the changes that will bring them into compliance with those regulations,” she said. “We also recognize that there will always be a population of children in foster care who cannot be maintained in foster family homes and who require the structure of a congregate care or group setting. So, there will always be a need for that level of congregate/therapeutic care that is provided by private provider agencies who are licensed by MDCPS.”

Mississippi’s child care system is also facing forced reforms as a result of the 2004 federal lawsuit Olivia Y. vs. Barbour, which alleged the state was failing to protect abused children and violating their constitutional right to due process. A settlement was reached in 2008, but the court has found the state violated the terms of the settlement numerous times and has ordered new agreements in the following years that are changing the way the state handles child care.

CPS, broken off the Mississippi Department of Human Services as a stand-alone agency in 2016, had some of its functions folded back into its old parent agency by the Legislature this year after it was discovered the separation would eliminate some federal funding. The Legislature funded CPS with almost $248 million this year.

Miller said her company had numerous meetings with the CPS since the law changed earlier this year, but there is no way to keep the shelter operating without children to care for and the state revenue that buys that care.

“Our doors have been open since all this talk started. Up until now, we’ve been full with a waiting list, but the state stopped referring,” she said. “We kept staff there, waiting for the calls, but the calls never came. We’re going under.”

Miller said her company would work with the state to help identify foster homes, and told supervisors county law enforcement and court officials should call CPS for treatment of any abused, neglected or runaway children from Lincoln County.

Lea Anne Brandon, director of communications for CPS, said any foster children housed in group homes that shut down would be placed in other facilities that best meet their care needs, whether that be foster homes or other congregate facilities.

The Hattiesburg center has operated since 1986, and Lincoln County has referred several children there for treatment over the years. Supervisors earmarked $2,000 for the center in Fiscal Year 2019, and have sent about that amount every year since at least 2001.

Supervisors thanked Miller for the personal appearance and expressed regret the center would no longer be available.

“Now, they’re taking from someone who is doing their job, and giving to someone who won’t do their job,” said District 1 Supervisor and Board President the Rev. Jerry Wilson. “The government needs to stay out of people’s business.”

District 4 Supervisor Eddie Brown said he hopes the state will “do what it’s supposed to do.”

“We deal with road problems here, and the state has promised us a lot, but we’ve seen nothing. If they do this with child care, it will be devastating to the kids,” he said.