Indigent parent aid effort backed

Published 12:05 am Thursday, December 26, 2013

NATCHEZ — A youth advocacy group has recommended that a pilot program tested in Adams County be expanded statewide.

The Commission on Children’s Justice made several recommendations to the Mississippi Supreme Court after three years of study of Mississippi’s child protection services earlier this month.

One of those recommendations includes enacting legislation to give indigent parents a court-appointed attorney for hearings in which they could lose parental rights.

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Mississippi is the only state that does not have such a practice, though four counties — Adams, Forrest, Harrison and Rankin — have a pilot program funded by Casey Family Programs that allows for indigent parents to have a court-appointed representative.

Adams County’s County Court Judge John Hudson oversees the youth court. Hudson said Adams County was chosen as the rural representative for the pilot program approximately a year and a half ago.

“One of the benefits to the court is if (parents) have a lawyer representing them, the possibility of finding permanency for the child quickly rises because the lawyer who represents them holds them accountable as well, making sure they are doing what the court has mandated them to do,” Hudson said. “If they aren’t able to do that, we come to that determination much earlier in the process. This lawyer can play a key role in getting the parents on board and getting them moving on getting their goals accomplished.”

Another benefit is the attorney knows what is happening in the courtroom and can best defend the interests of his clients, whereas most parents who find themselves facing a termination of parental rights do not.

“In those situations, you have an attorney for the state, a child advocate, a judge and you have this lonely couple over there representing their own interests,” Hudson said.

“In the courtroom, we have a responsibility to the best of our ability to make sure that everything that goes through the courtroom is a fair disposition of justice.

“The judge may have to ask some questions that I would never have to ask if a lawyer was there, and that is always an uncomfortable position for a judge to be in, because he or she is the impartial arbiter and should not be in a situation where he or she has to elicit information.”

Other recommendations the commission made include:

4The creation of a state-funded, uniform youth court system. Currently, youth court matters are overseen in the county courtroom in 21 counties — including Adams County — with all but one of the remaining counties having a part-time youth court referee appointed by the local Chancery Court.

If the system is created, Hudson said counties would pay the amount of money already directed to their youth courts directly to the state treasury, and any expansion of the system would be paid for by the state.

In counties with already existing county court-based youth courts, things would continue to operate as they have, Hudson said, while those counties without youth courts would form a full-time youth court system with three or four surrounding counties using their consolidated funding.

“It wouldn’t be a new state mandate, it would be a state takeover,” he sad.

“The benefit to Adams County would be that the future expansion of the court, which is going to happen in any case, is going to be a state responsibility.”

4The creation of a permanent staff position in every chancery court district for a guardian ad litem, an attorney to represent the best interests of the child.

4Create a state jurist position to help the Supreme Court observe and administer the youth court system.

4Evaluate case loads assigned to youth court prosecutors and public defenders.

4Seek funding and statutory authority for in-house attorneys to advise the Mississippi Department of Human Services’ case workers.

4Establish along with MDHS a court performance improvement program for local youth courts.

The state supreme court created the COCJ in 2006 with the charge to develop a statewide framework for improving the child welfare system.

Most of the commission’s recommendations would have to face legislative approval before they can be implemented.