Two years after a lawsuit forced the Legislature to turn Child Protection Services into a stand-alone agency, the director says a record-breaking deficit will compel the agency to rejoin the Department of Human Services.

The move, being considered just days after Child Protection Services announced a $39 million hole in its budget for fiscal year 2018, would effectively make CPS a sub-agency of the Department of Human Services.

The agency’s commissioner, Jess Dickinson, said the move is largely administrative, designed to help Child Protection Services receive the federal matching funds it has lost since the agency split from DHS in 2016. Although CPS is eligible for matching funds, too, Mississippi’s Department of Human Services has a much higher federal match rate.

“It was a terrible prospect and we’ve had to act quickly,” Dickinson said. “So the best financial picture for CPS is to remain a sub-agency so we can draw down those federal funds.”

Currently two bills introduced in the House and Senate aim to rejoin the agencies. According to Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, who worked with CPS on the House bill, the legislation “won’t change the substance of how these agencies operate.” If this legislation passes, it would reunite Child Protection Services with the Department of Human Services on July 1 — coincidentally, the same day the split of the two agencies would have been finalized.

Dickinson told a House appropriations subcommittee on Monday that if the Legislature is able to again fold Child Protection Services under the Department of Human Services umbrella, CPS likely will be financially solvent for fiscal year 2019.

What is less certain, he admits, is where the agency will find the nearly $40 million to keep it financially solvent for fiscal year 2018. Unlike many state agencies, Child Protection Services is unable to make any staffing cuts, the result of the same court-ordered settlement agreement that mandated the agencies split in the first place.

“When you talk about cutting our budget, there’s not much to cut when you start getting into the weeds of how to care for these children,” Dickinson said. “So it’s a very serious issue. These aren’t discretionary things. We’ve got to take care of these children, we have to. So we’ve got to find this money.”

The most likely scenario, according to Dickinson, is the funds will come from a combination of state and federal dollars. If the state can appropriate two-thirds of the money to make up for deficit, or approximately $26 million, he said the rest will likely come from federal funds.

“The Legislature seems to understand that we’re going to need some deficit appropriation, and the governor and DHS are very serious about finding us additional (federal) money,” Dickinson said. “And that’s all that can be done right now to improve our financial picture. And it’s going to be done. If you want my opinion, I think it’s going to work out. We just need a little time.

“But nobody wants to put these children in the street so I think everybody’s going to respond to this crisis.”

Although the Legislature did not vote to split Child Protection Services and the Department of Human Services until 2016, the roots of the agency’s current financial crisis date back to 2004, when six children in foster care sued the state of Mississippi for failing to adequately provide for children in its custody. A federal court sided with the plaintiffs, and the resulting settlement has completely remade the agency, mandating everything from staff minimums to how money for the agency is appropriated.

The biggest change, however, was the requirement that the Legislature create a stand-alone agency for its Child and Family Services division, which had only been a department within the larger DHS. In their rush to comply with the settlement, however, lawmakers admit they may have overlooked a key element of any agency — how its funding works.

In the Senate Appropriations subcommittee meeting last week, when Dickinson announced the record-breaking deficit, Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, admitted the Legislature “did it wrong.”

Gipson, who is sponsoring the House bill to make CPS a sub-agency of DHS, elaborated on this point after Monday’s House Appropriations subcommittee meeting.

“I would at some point like to peel back the layers and determine what happened here, what false assumptions got us to this point,” said Gipson. “We’re not in the business of creating new agencies. Most of the agencies we’ve had have been around for decades, some even longer. So this is a unique crisis driven by this settlement and a unique set of circumstances.”

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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.