Child advocates say MDHS is broken

Published 12:13 am Sunday, April 27, 2008

The very system that took one Adams County woman from the grips of child abuse is now in such shambles she’s turned her back on it.

The woman — who asked to remain anonymous — was a foster child in the care of the Mississippi Department of Human Services from the age of 14 to 19.

As an adult, she wanted to give back, and began working for the DHS.

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But a broken system caught in near debilitating levels of bureaucracy pushed her to quit, she said.

“The system is not working,” she said.

That’s a fact other area children’s rights experts agree on.

Adams County Youth Court Judge John Hudson said he recognized the sad irony in the system that’s meant to help children is actually working against them.

“(DHS) loses priority and gets pushed down the list,” he said describing how funding is taken from programs like DHS and moved to other place.

But a plan for change is already in action.

In March 2004, Children’s Rights sued the Mississippi DHS alleging that the department, instead of aiding abused and neglected children worked against them.

In May 2007, the state acknowledged its liability and began a process equivalent to a complete overhaul of the entire DHS system.

Children’s Rights Executive Director, and lead attorney on the case Marcia Lowry said the group’s victory in the court system was the first step in a turning point for DHS.

Only in the last six months have the terms of DHS’s reform obligations been developed.

The implementation of those terms is only just beginning and is scheduled to take five years.

At the end of that time many locals working for the betterment of children are hoping to see a vastly different system.

Lowry said the need for change within the Mississippi department was immense.

“Mississippi might be as bad as I’ve seen,” she said.

Lowry has successfully litigated against, and forced reform in, multiple states across the country.

She described the system in Mississippi as one that was “very destructive” and one where “kids were being badly hurt.”

The Adams County woman who asked to be anonymous worked as a case manager with DHS.

She, like Lowry, said caseworkers assigned to foster children or wards of the state are, the majority of the times, too overloaded with cases to get any work done.

“It’s not possible,” she said.

During her time as a DHS case manager, the woman said it was not uncommon to be assigned 40 or more cases to handle.

New regulations set forth by the DHS settlement would cut that number in half.

After leaving DHS the woman went to work for what she called a local “DHS provider.”

The provider the woman described is basically a group home for children.

“Most of the children who will be placed in foster care are in need of a great deal of emotional and mental help,” she said. “The situations many of them have come from are unimaginable.”

Lowry said in some Mississippi counties caseworkers were managing as many as 100 cases each.

The situation was so dire the department actually labeled the situation as “beyond danger,” Lowry said.

Natchez Sunshine Children’s Center Director Matilda Stephens said foster care reforms outlined in the settlement are badly needed.

The shelter is a locally run group home for children.

Stephens said the new reforms will help to establish new foster care facilities and to educate and train foster parents.

The reforms will also limit the amount of children living in a foster home to five, including biological children.

Stephens said she is aware of one foster parent in Adams County that has 10 children in his care.

“It’s outrageous,” she said.

Stephens said group homes like the Sunshine Center are only legally allowed to house 12 children at a time.

While many working with abused and neglected youth in the county are looking for change those charged to make it happen say it’s on the way.

Rusty Fortenberry, an attorney who represented the state in the DHS suit, said the funding is on its way back in the right direction.

DHS representatives would only speak through their attorney.

Fortenberry pointed to nearly $36 million in funding appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour that will go to repairing the DHS.

Fortenberry called the entire situation a “long complex issue.”

Fortenberry said the state is willing to do its part in repairing the system and is seeking accreditation from the Council on Accreditation.

Fortenberry said the accreditation at the end of the five-year period would, “be a very high achievement.”