Youth advocates seeking funding for program

Published 12:11 am Sunday, January 4, 2015

NATCHEZ — Youth and family advocates will head to Jackson this year to ask the legislature to continue funding a pilot program that they say at best helps families stay together and at least saves taxpayer money.

Adams County’s youth court is one of four in the state that for the last two years has been part of a pilot program legal providing representation to indigent parents facing the possibility of losing custody of their children.

The project is funded through the Casey Family Programs, a private foundation.

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Adams County received $25,000 annually from the grant, but the program was set to run out in 2014. The Casey foundation agreed to extend the funding until the counties found a new source for the pilot program.

“The purpose of the program is to develop some data to show the state that it is a necessary and actually cost-saving measure overall, when you look at the whole process,” said former Youth Court Judge John Hudson, who oversaw the program’s implementation in Adams County.

Those backing the program plan to ask the legislature for funds to keep it going. Mississippi is the only state in the U.S. that does not provide an attorney for indigent parents who might lose their parental rights.

“If you are charged with a crime that could put you in jail for six months, you are entitled to a court-appointed attorney, but in Mississippi if you are going to lose your child forever, you don’t have that,” Hudson said.

“That’s an inequality that we recognize in our system right now, and this program is an attempt to find the best solution for this.”

Having legal representation for the parent can help speed up the ultimate determination if a child can be placed back in their parental home or if the child needs to be permanently placed elsewhere, Hudson said.

“In an abuse and neglect case, those are first heard and then you determine if the child has to be removed and placed in foster care, and that is a pretty expensive proposition — and the state pays for that,” he said.

“For the couple of years we have done it, we have found this program hastens that process. The parents feel like they have a representative who belongs to them, but that representative makes them more accountable to act quickly instead of put it off.”

The program likewise helps judges, Hudson said.

“From a personal experience, one of the most uncomfortable places a judge can be is on one side of the courtroom you have a parent at one table alone —and often uneducated — and at the other table you may have as many as three attorneys with the state who are not there to advocate for them.

“That puts the judge in the position of stepping partially into an advisory role to make sure the hearing is as fair as possible — when the other side has lawyers and you don’t, you are at a distinct disadvantage.”

Adams County Youth Court Judge Walt Brown, who officially assumed the role Jan. 1, said he is familiarizing himself with the program and will work to find ways to sustain all of the youth court’s grant funding moving forward.