On May 25, 2015, an infant child of drug addicted parents died in Marion County. He was the third young child to die from abuse or neglect in the county since 2014. Concerned neighbors had called the Division of Family and Children’s Services. But no one from the overwhelmed agency had followed up.

America’s drug epidemic has hit Marion County hard. Of the 254 children in foster care there last year, parental drug use factored into more than half of the cases.

But Marion County is hardly an outlier. A record number of children entered state custody in 2016 as America’s drug epidemic spread to Mississippi’s families.

Across the state last year, Child Protection Services removed 3,690 children from their homes. Parental drug abuse factored into 1,674 of these cases, a 40 percent increase in just one year. In 2015, parental drug abuse had factored into 1,198 cases. In 2013, drug use accounted for just 716 of the children entering state custody.

For the family court judges who hear these cases, the sheer number can be overwhelming.

“It seemed like daily it was one horror story after another,” said Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam. Prior to joining the Supreme Court in 2015, Beam spent five years as a chancery judge overseeing Marion County’s Youth Court.

But the moment Beam heard about that infant’s death on May 25 still stands out to her.

“It was Memorial Day. It changed my life, quite frankly,” Beam said. “In my opinion we failed to protect that child … so it became imperative that I make whatever sacrifices necessary to upend the system fully and then be part of the solution.”

The solution that Beam found is ReNewMS, a pilot project from the state Commission on Children’s Justice. She said the program has been a passion project for her and co-chair First Lady Deborah Bryant. The first lady was not available for comment.

The goal of ReNewMS is to use state and community resources to help parents break the cycles of drug addiction and child abuse and neglect. The program launched in October in Marion, Pearl River and Hancock counties. Like Marion, Pearl River and Hancock counties have particularly high rates of child abuse and neglect associated with parental drug use.

“(Beam and Bryant) have both hit the ground running and are doing a spectacular job putting a program in place to help our young mothers who are fighting addiction. We expect the efforts to result in many of these young mothers returning to a level of health where they can properly care for their children,” said David Chandler, executive director of Child Protection Services.

Improving the way Mississippi handles vulnerable children has long been a priority in the state. In his State of the State Address Tuesday night, Gov. Phil Bryant echoed his wife’s commitment to these children by pledging to focus on improving the state’s historically troubled foster care system.

“I have dedicated my remaining time in office to ensuring our foster children get the care they deserve. It will be my top priority. We cannot and will not fail at this endeavor. Our children will be protected,” Bryant said.

And Child Protective Services has become, literally, a different agency since the death of that infant in 2015 as a result of court-ordered restructuring. Last spring, Bryant signed Senate Bill 2179, establishing Child Protection Services as its own agency, separate from the Department of Human Services. Its budget has increased as has the number of social workers across the state, a move that has also increased the number of children in state custody, said Tracy Malone, deputy commissioner at Child Protection Services.

Tracy Malone, Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services

“As we’re improving the training that we’re doing for our staff, we have staff doing better assessments of safety of children, and because of that information we’re providing to the courts, it’s resulted in more children coming into care in the state,” Malone said.

Fewer kids like the one in Marion County are slipping through the cracks, Malone said. But the downside is that more kids are coming into state custody at a time when the goal of the new Child Protection Services has become keeping as many children as possible in their homes.

“Just the fact that we’ve removed a child from their home, even if it’s the only home they knew, it’s creating trauma; it’s a traumatic event,” Malone said. “And I don’t think we’ve always looked at it that way.”

The number of children in custody has risen from 6,498 in 2013 to a record high of 8,944 this year, and drug use has fueled much of the increase, according to representatives from Child Protection Services.

In contrast, the rate of cases in which alcohol contributed remained essentially unchanged, dropping from 142 in 2013 to 136 in 2016.

“It has a lot to do with the drugs,” Malone said. “Certainly in my experience, as we saw the numbers starting to increase with parental substance abuse, we saw an increase in the resulting neglect for these children.”

The tension between these two goals — keeping children safe and keeping them with their families — can be difficult to balance, according to Beam. That’s where ReNewMS comes in, she said.

“When I was serving as a chancery judge I saw firsthand that the parents were struggling with drug addiction, and we had to get them well and healthy before we could even begin to look at reunifying parents with their kids,” Beam said.

Breaking the cycle of abuse will be key to the program’s success.

“The parents that we’re dealing with today, more often than not, were children we dealt with 15 to 20 years ago,” Beam said.

ReNewMS is a collaborative effort that relies on the resources of community organizations and several state agencies, including the Division of Medicaid, the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Health, Child Protection Services, the Mississippi Hospital Association and the Mississippi Medical Association.

Beam said the plan is to take a parent struggling with addiction and “wrap the community around her” in an effort to help them recover and be productive parents.

Although other states are trying similar programs, Beam said that ReNewMS is unique and part of the reason is Child Protection Services is such a new agency.

“No state has the perfect plan — we are all playing catch-up,” Beam said. “(But Mississippi) is probably more open to new ideas recognizing the huge challenge ahead.

“It’s a complex issue, but failure is not an option. Politicians are elected with the basic understanding that they’re going to protect the children and vulnerable among us, and we have a duty to do that. Every Mississippian has a moral duty to do that, once you know the problem is out there, to search your heart and see how you can make a difference.”

Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.