Children’s Rights focuses on Mississippi

Published 11:33 pm Saturday, June 30, 2007

The case Olivia Y et al vs. Gov. Haley Barbour, et al is a class action law suit filed by Children’s Rights in 2003. It is an organization in New York City. The law firm of Bradley, Arant, Rose and White, LLP of Jackson, Miss. is handling the case in Jackson. On May 17, the case came before United States District Court Judge Tom S. Lee for review of a proposed settlement agreement. Until that settlement is agreed upon by both the defendants and the plaintiffs, Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) exective director, Donald Taylor has no comment.

The Children’s Rights investigation culled a huge amount of evidence through interviews with foster parents, service providers, child advocacy attorneys, mental health professionals, school officials and nurses, law enforcement officials, a Chancery Court judge, and former MDHS social workers and supervisors. In these interviews 60 participants made statements based on experience with MDHS which supported the Chidlren’s Rights assertion that Mississippi has a need for reform. Those interviews were conducted May 2-3, 2007 by Talia Kraemer. More than 150 phone interviews were conducted from April 12 through May 10, 2007 by Jessica Wheeler with persons who had received the notice of the proposed settlement. The names of persons making the statements were not printed in the affidavits, but the affidvits are sworn to by the two paralegals Kraemer and Wheeler. who work for Children’s Rights.

Kraemer’s and Wheeler’s statements document the participants’ concerns including, that some foster homes are unsafe; children have been placed with non-custodial parents without background checks; a seven-year-old child self-mutilated; children were placed with relatives who repeatedly abuse drugs; an 11 year old child committed suicide after being placed back with his abusive mother, then removed from the mother’s care back into a different foster home.

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Another concern expressed by those interviewed by Wheeler and Kraemer was “inadequate financial support for class member’s care.” Callers reported foster parents’ difficulty in obtaining board payments or reimbursements of medical care from MDHS on behalf of class members. “One caller described withdrawing her application to be a foster parent as a result of the lack of support foster parents appeared to receive,” the affidavit stated.

The affidavits cited poor casework practice as another problem in the system. Participants told Wheeler most of the well-trained and qualified social workers have left MDHS.

“One participant received a phone call from a caseworker seeking information because she could not remember where she had placed an infant foster child two months previously,” the affidavit from Wheeler stated. The report added, “Another caseworker misplaced the case of an infant for six years. The foster parents wanted to adopt that child, but termination of parent(al) rights was delayed because the caseworker had never drawn up a service plan or attempted reunification with the child’s family. Despite a complaint from the youth court judge, that caseworker is still employed by MDHS.”

One situation reported in Kraemer’s affidavit was that of a little girl who could not walk due to severe physical abuse. She was taken from the home and given intense physical therapy, which enabled her to walk. MDHS then began visits with the child’s 18 year old aunt, and the child returned with cigarette burns and cuts all over her body. Despite this, the child was removed from the foster home and given into the aunt’s full-time care. Four months later the child was removed from the aunt’s care because they had no food or money or place to live. While the child was with the aunt, the theraputic treatments stopped. That child was placed in another foster home and is now deemed disabled.

Kraemer also said in her affidavit that participants reported children are frequently placed with relatives before back ground checks are completed. One participant reported to Kraemer that a FEMA trailer was housing 9 or 10 foster children. Several participants reported that MDHS transported children without car seats.

One participant told Kraemer that doctors at his hospital contact MDHS regarding drug-addicted newborns an estimated 10 to 30 times per month, yet MDHS only respond to three to five of these reports.

“The problems date back to 1992, documented cases, where children in the foster care system have not been treated fairly. The State of Mississippi’s ‘we’ll fix it’, hasn’t fixed the problems,” attorney Melody Mcanally of Bradley, Arant, Rose and White, LLP said in a phone interview two weeks ago.

These instances cover just a few of the problems documented in Kraemer’s and Wheeler’s affidavits.

The MDHS website states emphatically that the health, well-being and safety of each child is of foremost concern. Two attorneys and the district attorney confirm they believe this is true.

“The lawsuit was necessary to make the state accountable to the federal court system,” Mcanally said. “This has been going on for 15 years. The fact that the state is not fighting this suit, says this is a very valid suit.”

She went on to say this is a huge first step in getting the system fixed and added, “We commend the governor and the attorney general because they are pushing for the same goal we are. We have the same goals and that is to make sure the children are safe.

“The bottom line,” she said, “is the federal court will hold the state of Mississippi in contempt if these problems are not fixed. The federal court will make sure the state complies with the agreement. Now it will be up to Executive Director Don Taylor, Gov. Haley Barbour and the legislators, because they all will be held accountable.”