DHS successfully appeals $750K judgment in 2004 Hinds Co. case

Published 4:21 pm Friday, August 10, 2007

The state Court of Appeals has thrown out a $750,000 judgment the Mississippi Department of Human Services was ordered to pay to a minor who claimed he was sexually abused at a chemical dependency facility.

However, the Appeals Court this week upheld a 2004 decision by Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd who ruled DHS breached its duty to the minor by failing to have sufficient face-to-face contacts and by failing to fully investigate the claims of sexual abuse.

The Appeals Court sent the case back to Kidd for a new trial on the issue of damages.

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Kidd had heard the case without a jury and then ruled.

The key issue in the case was whether DHS’ policy required a social worker to have face-to-face visits with youths when the state takes custody and sends them to a facility.

The child’s family argued that DHS’ policies clearly required monthly, face-to-face contact.

According to the court record, the 14-year-old was removed from his home in Jackson and sent 150 miles away to licensed chemical-dependency treatment centers in Ackerman and Starkville in late 1996.

The youth claimed he was sexually assaulted by staffers at the facilities. He eventually was returned to his mother, according to court documents.

DHS officials had two face-to-face visits with the youth during the 14 months he was in either of the facilities, but they had other contact through letters or telephone calls, according to the arguments before the Court of Appeals.

DHS claimed Kidd erred in awarding the $750,000 because the liability limit for a state agency is $50,000 per occurrence. The child’s family argued Kidd rightly found DHS was subject to $50,000 damage per each occurrence stretching over the time period from October 1996 to December 1997.

The Appeals Court found that DHS’ investigation to determine whether the youth had been sexually abused was “grossly inadequate.”

“We are quite pleased with the court’s unanimous opinion which found that DHS can be held accountable in a court of law for neglecting those over whom they have custody and particularly vulnerable children in the foster care system,” the youth’s attorney, Carlton Reeves, said Wednesday.

Reeves said he hopes the decision will signal to DHS that it needs to change the way it does business.

“It appears from this case that DHS has completely abdicated its responsibility to these precious children including our client who faces a very difficult life, in part, because of DHS’ utter neglect,” Reeves said.

DHS Executive Director Don Taylor was out of the office Wednesday and couldn’t be reached for comment.