Olivia Y foster care settlement adds social workers, loosens regs

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A federal judge on Monday approved a change in a settlement over Mississippi’s foster care system, a lawsuit that has dogged the state since 2010.

The update in Olivia Y. v. Barbour loosens several of the reporting requirements imposed on Department of Mississippi’s Child Protection Services under the original 2012 consent decree.

The agreement also provides for additional social workers across the state and in the number of licensed foster homes with the goal of more quickly finding permanent placements for children.

“Thanks to the leadership of our governor and other elected officials, we are now able to enact system reform in Mississippi that directly impacts the lives of the children and families statewide. With their support, we are working daily to improve and expand our services. We are putting more well-trained employees into every county of our state. We are recruiting and licensing more foster homes and adoptive, loving parents to care for children in need. And we are focusing all that we do to ensure the safety of every Mississippi child,” Tracy Malone, deputy commissioner of child welfare for Mississippi, said in a press release about the settlement.

The Olivia Y. case has spurred a complete restructuring of Mississippi’s foster care system since the suit was filed in 2004.

The lawsuit alleged that Mississippi’s foster care system continually neglected the children in its custody, as exemplified by the case of Olivia Y. and six other child plaintiffs in the suit.

The suit sought only court-ordered changes in the foster care system, not monetary damages. And several changes have been made. Training requirements for caseworkers were strengthened, and the state improved its record of keeping siblings together and placing children within a hours’ drive of their homes.

But a 2014 report showed that Mississippi’s foster care system still lagged in several areas such as keeping accurate data and investigating the mistreatment of children in the system.

As a result, the Department of Human Services, which along with then-Gov. Haley Barbour, was an original defendant in the lawsuit, also spun off the office of Child Protection Services into its own agency last year. Gov. Phil Bryant appointed former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice David Chandler as its first director.

Last spring, U.S. District Judge Tom Lee signed a second court order instructing the state to continue with specifics to comply with his 2008 mandate to clean up the system. This updated settlement results from that order.