Commissioner who rescued Child Protection Services retires

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State Supreme Court Justice Jess Dickinson

Just a year and a half after taking the reins of the state’s once-troubled foster care system, David Chandler announced Monday that he will retire as commissioner of Child Protection Services on Sept. 15.

Chandler will be replaced by his former state Supreme Court colleague, Presiding Justice Jess H. Dickinson. Chandler left his post on the state’s highest court in 2015 to run Child Protection Services, which had been battling the Department of Justice for more than a decade over allegations that Mississippi’s foster care system continually neglected the children in its custody.

Chandler’s tenure, though brief, has been distinguished. In May, after just over a year on the job, Chandler received the national Warren and Mary Alice Babineaux Award for his “exceptional leadership on behalf of children in the state’s foster care system.” At the award ceremony, Gov. Phil Bryant called Chandler’s work for the agency “invaluable.”

“Dr. Chandler has done a remarkable job leading Child Protection Services,” Bryant said in a press release Monday. “He has dedicated himself to improving the lives of our most vulnerable children. Our foster care system has made significant progress under his direction, and I wish him the best upon his well-deserved retirement.”

Problems in the state’s foster care system came to light more than a decade ago. In 2004, the Justice Department sued then-Gov. 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 stand-alone 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.

Earlier this year, under Chandler’s leadership, Child Protection Services negotiated with plaintiffs in the Olivia Y litigation to have the agency removed from oversight by a federal court monitor.

Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

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

In a statement Monday, Chandler said that with the agency up and running, he is ready to move on.

“Gov. Bryant gave me an opportunity to serve the citizens of our state in the most meaningful way possible — working to secure the safety and well-being of our most vulnerable children,” Chandler said. “I now ask Gov. Bryant to allow me to step aside from my official role as commissioner, but remain committed to helping Mississippi’s struggling families cope with their daily challenges.”

Dickinson has served on the state Supreme Court since January 2004, representing District 2, Place 1. Prior to that, he was a Forrest County Circuit Court Judge.

His first year on the Supreme Court, Dickinson was awarded the Chief Justice Award for his work to advance the administration of justice. He received the award again in 2010 for his efforts to improve access to justice for the poor in Mississippi. In 2009, the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project awarded Dickinson its Pro Bono Pioneer Award.

“I am confident Justice Dickinson will build on the progress made at CPS,” said Bryant in a statement. “He has proven himself a compassionate and capable jurist, and that experience will serve him well in his new position. I am delighted he has accepted this appointment. Providing our foster children the care and treatment they deserve will remain my administration’s top priority the rest of my term.”

Dickinson said he plans to bring more resources to Child Protection Services during his tenure.

“I am committed to lead the department to comply with all the benchmarks and requirements associated with the Olivia Y litigation, but that is not my ultimate end,” Dickinson said in a statement Monday. “Rather, I am determined to use every available resource to achieve our shared goal: making Mississippi a place where not one single abused or neglected child is overlooked, forgotten or unserved.”