Mississippi lacks caseworkers for foster children, county affected

Published 7:00 am Friday, July 13, 2018

The Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services is struggling to provide enough caseworkers for foster children and may inevitably be faced with legal consequences. 

According to coverage by the Associated Press, in accordance with the outcome of Olivia Y. vs Barbour proceedings, caseworkers with the MDCPS must meet a targeted number of cases. This means the number of children caseworkers can work with at any given time is limited. The state was supposed to have most of its social workers (90 percent) working within the targeted number by the end of 2017, AP coverage states. However, at the beginning of this year, only 61 percent were within that target. The percentage dropped to 52 percent in May, AP coverage states.

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According to coverage, if the MDCPS cannot distribute the number of cases more evenly among social workers, it could face receivership.

MDCPS Director of Communications Lea Anne Brandon, said via email correspondence that Pearl River County is among the counties experiencing a shortage of social workers.

“We do need additional workers in Pearl River County to balance caseloads and come into compliance with the court order there – and we are in the process of recruiting, hiring and reassigning staff to cover that imbalance,” Brandon said via email.

She said that the department is still working to evaluate the exact number of workers that will need to be hired to be in compliance, so she could not cite a specific number. However, she said that the local department is interviewing and recruiting applicants on a regular basis to fill the need.

According to an MDCPS infographic map of the state, there were 5,243 children in MDCPS custody at the beginning of July. The majority of these children are concentrated along the Gulf Coast. On that date, there were 169 children in MDCPS care in Pearl River County. In the surrounding areas, 250 children in Hancock County were in MDCPS care, 161 were in care in Forrest County, and within Harrison County 770 children were in MDCPS care. Pearl River, Hancock, Lamar, Forrest, Stone, Harrison, Jackson, George, Greene and Perry Counties all comprise the Southern District. Among these 10 counties, 1,926 children were in the care of the Department of Child Protective Services – just below 37 percent of all children in protective services across the state.

According to an article by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, caseload guidelines were originally set in 1993 by the Child Welfare League of America.

“CWLA recommends that workers investigating allegations of abuse and neglect carry at most 12 active cases per month. Workers carrying ongoing in-home protective services cases should carry no more than 15-17 families, while those providing intensive family preservation services should serve between two and six families at a given time,” the article states.

Having too many cases can affect the ability of social workers to provide adequate time and attention to children under MDCPS care, an article by Children’s Rights (the organization over the Olivia Y lawsuit) states.

“Often when workers are spread too thin, they fail to link kids with permanent families, children are not visited, they are put in inappropriate homes and the risk of abuse and neglect increases,” the article states.

Brandon said via email that while having caseworkers stick to the caseload requirement would be ideal, sometimes last-minute situations arise, which regulations fail to provide adequate wiggle room.

“The issue with the caseload compliance is that on any given day, a caseworker could have an appropriate caseload of 14 children but then an emergency investigation is called in and that one assignment will put them out of compliance with the lawsuit requirements. Two days later, when the investigation is completed, the worker would be back in compliance – but if the court-ordered measurement is taken between those days, the worker is counted as ‘above’ workload standards,” Bandon said via email.

“MDCPS Commissioner Jess Dickinson and the Agency continue to work diligently to protect and to meet the safety and care needs of children in the State of Mississippi, to manage and secure adequate funding, and to comply with the orders of this Court and the settlement agreements entered into this litigation,” a release by MDCPS states.

Supervisors at the Pearl River County MDCPS division declined to comment.