Gov. Phil Bryant and Dr. David Chandler, right, commissioner of Child Protection Services

After just over a year on the job, David Chandler, commissioner of Child Protection Services, was nationally cited Monday for his work with Mississippi’s foster care children.

During a ceremony in the governor’s office at the Capitol, the National Council for Adoption presented Chandler with the Warren and Mary Alice Babineaux Award for his “exceptional leadership on behalf of children in the state’s foster care system.”

After the ceremony, Gov. Phil Bryant praised Chandler, calling his contributions to Child Protection Services “invaluable.”

“The more David Chandler became involved (in the Department), the more we realized what we had not been able to see,” Bryant said. “It’s been a huge undertaking, but it’s been an important one.”

Accepting the award, Chandler told a story about a 14-year-old child in the foster care system, with whom he’d worked directly.

Several months ago, her case worker had discovered the girl was pregnant. Chandler said the department had worked tirelessly to find her a new home — and to get her child adopted. He said they succeeded on both counts.

Earlier Monday he received a text message: the baby was born healthy.

“So a baby is born, but a cycle is broken. That’s the kind of work we’re in,” Chandler said.

The Babineaux Award honors individuals and organizations who have “demonstrated the most selfless commitment to providing resources, education and leadership to address the many challenges facing the foster care system,” according to a press release from the National Council for Adoption.

Mississippi’s foster care system has certainly experienced its share of challenges. In 2004, the Justice Department sued then-governor Haley Barbour and the Department of Human Services, alleging 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.

Beginning in 2007, a series of settlements were reached. 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 Mississippi Legislature spun off Child Protection Services from the Department of Human Services in 2015, making it a standalone agency and dramatically increasing its budget. That December, Bryant appointed Chandler, then a state Supreme Court justice, as its first director. This March, the Legislature officially confirmed his appointment as commissioner of the department, a cabinet-level position.

When presenting the award, Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council for Adoption, acknowledged the challenges foster children in Mississippi face. But he also said that in his short tenure, Chandler’s leadership has made dramatic changes in his young department.

“Mississippi’s decades-long struggle to provide adequate care for all children in its foster care system — and ongoing struggle to increase adoptions of waiting children — has drawn public attention and legal concerns,” Johnson said in a press release. “Dr. Chandler is tasked with identifying and correcting weaknesses in the current system — and he is doing just that.”

Child Protection Services currently has 6,116 children in state custody, down from nearly 8,000 in 2015. The Department currently employs 1,566 staff members of which about 1,200 work directly with at-risk families and children. The agency plans to hire another 400 case workers by the end of the year, according to Lea Anne Brandon, director of communications.

The Warren and Mary Alice Babineaux Award was first given in 2015. Past recipients include Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado.

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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.