Thompson to head Miss. Dept. of Human Services

Published 5:52 pm Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Gov. Haley Barbour has tapped one retired military man to succeed another as head of the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

Don R. Taylor, a retired Army colonel, is stepping down as agency director on July 1. He is to be replaced by Don R. Thompson, a retired Navy captain.

Republican Barbour noted both men retired with the equivalent standing in their respective military branches.

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“I think of this as being a lateral transfer,” the governor said Tuesday as he was flanked by Taylor and Thompson — who wore nearly identical dark suits and blue-and-silver striped ties.

Thompson, 60, has been director of the state Personnel Board since early 2007. He said he needs time to evaluate the agency operations and doesn’t contemplate any immediate changes at DHS, which employs about 3,000.

“We’ll certainly build on what’s already been started,” Thompson added.

DHS distributes food stamps, collects delinquent child support payments and manages foster care, among other duties.

Thompson’s nomination eventually will have to be confirmed by the state Senate.

Taylor, 71, said he chose to retire. He led the agency from May 1995 to January 2000 under Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice, leaving when Fordice’s second term expired. When Barbour took office in January 2004, he brought Taylor back for a second stint.

Barbour said DHS has received about $24 million in federal bonuses for “superior performance” under Taylor.

“Col. Taylor, you deserve a lot of credit,” Barbour told him Tuesday.

In a state with one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the nation, DHS has operated abstinence programs aimed at young people. Taylor said abstinence has “a zero percent failure rate” as a form of birth control.

The agency has been criticized for the way it has run the Columbia and Oakley training schools for juvenile offenders.

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Mississippi over conditions at Columbia and Oakley. Among the accusations were claims that youngsters at Columbia were forced to eat their own vomit and were tossed naked into isolation cells.

Mississippi reached an agreement in May 2005 to end the lawsuit. As part of that four-year consent decree, a court monitor supervises progress at both facilities. A June 2007 report said some conditions had improved, but there were still problems.

Legislators have agreed to close Columbia later this month.