State has only itself to blame if sued over foster care

Published 2:54 pm Wednesday, May 25, 2011

If Mississippi is held in contempt of a federal court consent decree regarding its treatment of foster care children, it has only itself to blame. It could have been far different.

The New York-based advocacy group Children’s Rights Inc. asked U.S. District Judge Tom Lee to appoint an independent third party over the Department of Human Services and its Family and Children Services Division to ensure the five-year plan outlined in the 2008 federal settlement is carried out.

Marcia Lowry, executive director of the group, said that Mississippi had failed to implement an information and management system to track children in its custody as one example given in the hearing in asking that the state be held in contempt of the consent decree.

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Lee said he will rule later on Children’s Rights’ requests.

If the judge sides against the state, it will be a shame, not only for the sake of the children entrusted to the state’s care, but also because the state could have instead been a model for other states in its handling of children.

In 2007, Attorney General Jim Hood presented the plan to the Legislature, telling lawmakers he would like to reach a settlement on the suit against Mississippi the group filed in 2004.

It was a case the state likely would have lost, with the group credibly alleging that DHS was “so understaffed and underfunded that it literally abandons children it knows are being abused and neglected.”

Citing the state’s own reports, the lawsuit alleged incidents of sexual abuse, unqualified employees, backlogged cases, shortages of safe foster homes and fiscal mismanagement, among other problems.

The DHS statistics presented in a 2004 court appearance were so grim, Lee ruled that if the claims were proven, it “could readily be found to place every child in DHS custody at substantial risk of harm.”

But the settlement hammered out in 2007 and approved in 2008 provided a roadmap for the state to turn itself around. …

It would be a tragedy if it’s found the state continues to drag its feet in the face of such a terrible need. Children need safe homes and need not live in fear of abandonment, abuse or neglect.