Group: Miss. foster care system still lagging

Published 2:50 pm Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A children’s rights group says Mississippi has made little to no progress in improving its foster care system since a 2008 court settlement established a five-year plan for the state.

The criticism from New York-based Children’s Rights followed a monitoring report filed with the U.S. District Court in Jackson in early September by the independent Center for the Support of Families, according to a report in The Clarion-Ledger.

“The children of Mississippi deserve and are owed more,” said Children’s Rights attorney Shirim Nothenberg.

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Lori Woodruff, deputy administrator for the Department of Human Services’ Family and Children’s Services Division, said a recent federal review indicates progress.

“We were stronger in the areas of safety, in making sure our kids are getting an education and well-being issues, but we weren’t so strong in the area of working toward permanency for children,” she said. “We’re making progress, but we still want to make progress in the area of permanency.”

Children’s Rights sued Mississippi in 2004 over its child welfare system. The complaint was filed on behalf of a severely neglected 3-year-old named Olivia, and alleged the state failed to protect her and thousands of others in foster care.

The September monitoring report criticizes Mississippi’s tracking system, takes issue with case worker overloads and calls for stronger emphasis on foster children’s physical, dental and mental health needs.

At the recent Joint Legislative Budget Committee hearings in Jackson, DHS Executive Director Don Thompson requested lawmakers’ permission to hire 254 new employees, mostly social workers, for the 2012 fiscal year that begins July 1.

“I thought we’d taken care of that, but I guess not,” said House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer.

DHS has made strides in hiring social workers. The agency’s employment has grown by 235 in the last three years to 3,217, Personnel Board records show.

As of May 31, Family and Children’s Services had 142 supervisory staff and 620 caseworkers, of which 66 percent were hired since the end of 2007.

DHS struggles to find or recruit licensed social workers. Hinds County is singled out in the report as needing more caseworkers.

In fiscal 2010, almost 3,800 children received foster care services, a number on the rise. DHS’ Thompson attributes the increase to the bad economy and an increase in methamphetamine busts at homes where children are present.