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The head of the beleaguered Child Protection Services agency said that unless the agency receives an additional $26 million in state funds next year, it won’t be able to comply with a consent decree it agreed to just three years ago in the longstanding Olivia Y lawsuit.
On Thursday Commissioner of Child Protection Services Jess Dickinson asked the House Appropriations Committee to raise his agency’s budget for fiscal year 2020 by nearly 24 percent, from $110 million to $136 million. Without the extra money, Dickinson said, Child Protection Services would not have enough caseworkers to appropriately monitor children in the system.
“It’s totally funding,” Dickinson said after Thursday’s meeting. “It’s totally the ability to hire enough caseworkers (that keeps us from complying). It’s scary.”
Dickinson said the agency needs $7 million to hire more employees. The Legislative Budget Office, however, has recommended CPS funding remain level with fiscal year 2019.
“We’re going to do as much as we can to help,” House Appropriations Chairman John Read, R-Gautier said Thursday.
In December, just 56 percent of CPS caseworkers met caseload requirements, meaning that the rest had more cases than the court had decided they could appropriately monitor. According to the terms CPS had agreed to in 2016, that number was supposed to be 90 percent.
“Strictly speaking we are substantially out of compliance,” Dickinson said.
Dickinson said CPS has asked the court to reconsider the caseload requirements. But he also acknowledged that having the right number of caseworkers was the most crucial element of keeping vulnerable children in Mississippi safe.
“(If I don’t) have enough caseworkers the result of that is I may have a child out there who’s being abused or neglected, I don’t have somebody to send out there quick enough to bring that child out of danger. So that is a real serious problem for us,” Dickinson said.
Dickinson is also requesting $15 million in state funds to update the computer database CPS uses to run the agency, and an additional $3 million to stabilize the current program, a 25-year-old program Dickinson has described as “a black screen with a blinking green cursor” that he said is “dangerously close” to crashing.
The roll out will take two years and cost a total of $60 million, half of which will come from federal matching funds. According to the terms of the Olivia Y settlement, the agency must complete the upgrade by July 2021 or again be non compliant with the settlement.
“If it breaks down, we don’t know where our children are, except in the minds and memories of our caseworkers,” Dickinson said.
The other approximately $7.5 million of the increase that CPS is requesting would go towards complying with the new federal Families First act, which takes effect in two years and emphasizes keeping children in their homes. Not complying means the agency could lose substantial federal matching funds, which make up $100 million of the agency’s $210 million budget.
Correction: An earlier version of the story misstated the amount of state funds requested. The amount is $26 million not $52 million.