Children’s Justice Commission seeks coordinated efforts

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JACKSON – Building teamwork to improve the lives of Mississippi’s children was focus Monday for a revitalization of the state’s Commission on Children’s Justice, led by new Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam.

“We all have a moral duty to do all we can,” Beam told a 30-member gathering at the State Capitol. “This group needs to somehow empower our state to make a difference in the lives of our children.”

Holly Denson, right, youth court judge for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, introduces herself to fellow members of the Mississippi Commission on Children's Justice, holding its first meeting of 2016 in the State Capitol on May 16.

MS Today

Holly Denson, right, youth court judge for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, introduces herself to fellow members of the Mississippi Commission on Children’s Justice, holding its first meeting of 2016 in the State Capitol on May 16.

The group’s aim is to develop a statewide comprehensive approach to improving the child welfare system – across agencies, non-profits and private entities, including faith-based organizations.

Tom Broome, the group’s co-chair and Rankin County court judge, said key focus in 2016 will be increasing public awareness about child safety services and the needs associated with them, especially with the Legislature.

“We have opportunities that exist in this building,” Broome told the group, referring to the state’s executive and legislative leadership. “They listen to you. Encourage them and acquaint them with what you do and what you need.

“Money is the answer to all things in some regard.”

According to a 2015 report, nearly 4,000 Mississippi children live apart from their families, and more than 28,000 referrals for abuse and neglect came to the Department of Human Services.

In late 2015, Gov. Phil Bryant asked the Legislature to authorize and fund a new Department of Child Services to focus strictly on children’s welfare issues.

The Mississippi Supreme Court created the commission in 2006 and re-created it in June 2010 with Justice Randy Pierce and Broome at its helm. With Pierce’s departure to lead the state’s Judicial College, Chief Justice William Waller recently appointed Beam to replace him.

Commission members will reconvene in August to report their efforts at putting in place systems of greater coordination by service providers and others.

Dr. John Damon, CEO of Mississippi Children’s Home Services, urged members to consider how services can be provided to families so that their children never enter the foster system.

“How do we design highly coordinated care and how do we knock down these (service) silos?” he said.

Mississippi is under a federal court order to reform its child welfare services, and during the 2016 legislative session, some $34 million was approved to establish a separate agency to address required changes.

“We have to make some progress going forward,” Broome added. “At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is improving the lives of the children we serve.”