Mississippi Supreme Court denies Lincoln County child abuse investigation appeal

Published 3:33 pm Thursday, June 13, 2024

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Mississippi issued a ruling in a case of reported abuse of a student by school staff. The ruling denied an appeal from Lincoln County resident Felissa Jones against a court finding that Child Protection Services had no duty to investigate her accusations of abuse at a school.

The case originated in the Lincoln County School District, and was filed in Hinds County Chancery Court by Jones vs. Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services.

In 2019, Jones reported to CPS that her son had suffered abuse and neglect by staff at his LCSD elementary school. CPS responded that it does not investigate reports of abuse at school. Jones then sued the agency in July 2020, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief related the CPS’s intake policy that it does not investigate allegations of abuse in out-of-home settings, such as schools.

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After July 2020, CPS amended the policy to specify that it does not investigate these allegations if the alleged perpetrator “is not the parent, guardian, custodian, person responsible for the child’s care or support, or an adult relative or household member with access to the child”; Jones amended her suit based on the updated policy.

Jones’ argument was that Mississippi law mandates CPS investigate the report that her son had been abused and neglected at school. She alleged that by refusing to investigate, CPS deprived her son of the youth court’s jurisdiction. The suit sought declaratory relief that both the former and current policies violated the law, and injunctive relief ordering a change to CPS’s intake policy and ordering the agency to investigate any abuse complaints screened out due to the policies.

The Chancery Court denied a motion from Jones for judgment. When the Supreme Court denied her petition for an appeal, Jones asked the Chancery Court to reconsider the denial. While that motion was pending, CPS moved for a judgment. The Chancellor denied the motion for reconsideration, granted CPS’s motion, and dismissed Jones’ complaint.

Jones appealed to the Supreme Court, challenging the denials and the grant of a motion for judgment to CPS.

“In her brief, Jones splits her argument into multiple issues. But her appeal really only raises one question,” Justice James Maxwell wrote in the higher court’s ruling. “[D]oes MDCPS have a statutory duty to investigate abuse allegations in out-of-home settings such as schools and daycare? The answer hinges on statutory interpretation. … [After] review, we agree with the chancellor’s interpretation of the relevant youth court statutes.”

“… while a school’s environment is extremely important to our children, who spend a significant amount of their time in the temporary care of teachers, school staff, and administrators, the youth court statutes do not equate a child’s school with a child’s home. And the statutes do not treat teachers as surrogate parents or custodians,” the ruling states. “Instead, the Legislature has made a clear delineation between reports of abuse and neglect by a parent, custodian, or other similarly situated adult — which fall under the youth court’s limited jurisdiction — and reports of abuse and neglect in out-of-home settings, such as schools — which do not.”

Therefore, the Court ruled, CPS has no duty to investigate reports of abuse in those settings. “We thus affirm,” the ruling states. Justices Coleman, Beam, Chamberlin, Ishee and Griffis concurred. Justice Randolph concurred in result only, but did not offer a written opinion.

Justice James Kitchens dissented with the ruling, and provided a written opinion, joined by Justice King. In the dissent, Kitchens writes, “It is obvious that Mississippi law requires [CPS] to investigate reports of all abusive and/or neglectful conduct toward children. … I would find that MDCPS’s policies to the contrary, past and present, are violative of Mississippi [law]. Respectfully, I dissent and would reverse the judgment and remand the case to the trial court.”

“If a parent suspects that his or her child is being abused or neglected, that parent is obligated to report such suspicious to MDCPS … regardless of where the alleged misconduct is occurring,” Kitchens continued.

Kitchens argued that the plain language of the law places a duty upon CPS to investigate all reports of child abuse, and submit its findings and recommendations to the youth court “if its investigation determines the validity of a report of child abuse or neglect.” His opinion was that the trial judge erred in the judgment, and he would therefore “reverse the trial court’s decision and remand the case to the trial court.”

The majority ruling stands, however.

Read the complete ruling here.