Child Protection Services failed to meet settlement requirements in foster care lawsuit

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Mississippi’s Child Protection Services agency failed to meet most of the requirements in its long-running Olivia Y settlement agreement, according to a report from a neutral court monitor.

The monitor looked at 113 different areas of the agency, ranging from properly investigating reports of children in foster care to providing timely medical care to those kids. The agency met 37 of those requirements in 2018. For the rest, CPS either didn’t meet the requirements, provided information that the monitor couldn’t prove was true or didn’t provide information at all.

The report said this failure “creates blind spots that impair MDCPS management’s ability to lead the Department and ensure the safety, well-being and permanency of children consistent with (its agreement).”

“Obviously, it is impossible for a state to protect children if it can’t even provide basic information on what is happening to those children,” said Wayne Drinkwater, co-counsel for the plaintiffs with Bradley Arant.

The agency acknowledged its shortcomings and said it hadn’t been given the time or resources to meet the requirements.

“Mississippi’s lead child welfare agency has made significant improvement in its efforts to protect the state’s at-risk, abused and neglected children and their families – but acknowledges it needs more time and money to accomplish all that must be done to satisfy the measures of the settlement agreement in the longstanding Olivia Y litigation,” said Lea Anne Brandon, director of communications at CPS, in a statement.

The agency has long argued it has been underfunded. In January of 2018, agency commissioner Jess Dickinson had shocked lawmakers when he told the Senate Appropriations Committee that CPS was facing a $39 million deficit for 2018.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, however, questioned whether Mississippi had been doing enough with what it had already been given – and suggest the court appoint an outside receiver to run the agency.

“We don’t know where the money allocated to Mississippi’s foster care system is going, but it is certainly not going to protect children,” said Marcia Lowry, an attorney for plaintiffs. “It is now time for the federal court to act, and we will provide the documentation showing just how unsafe and unprotected Mississippi’s children are today.”

The report is a significant blow to an agency that has already weathered several high-profile struggles in the last two years. In March of 2018, Lowry sent the court a letter of non-compliance, alleging, in a preview of the monitor’s findings, that the agency had failed to hire enough caseworkers to properly monitor kids in foster care.

“It’s just kind of blown us away,” Senate Appropriations Chair Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, said in January, about the nearly $40 million deficit. “Everything we’d heard up to that point was that the agency was fine.”

The issues with child supervision outlined in this report are significant because they are at the root of the original Olivia Y. litigation. In 2004, six children in foster care sued the state of Mississippi for failing to adequately provide for children in state custody. Olivia Y., a 3-year-old, was so severely neglected by her foster family that by the time the state intervened she weighed only 22 pounds. A federal court sided with the plaintiffs, known collectively as Olivia Y., and the resulting settlement has completely remade the agency—and made staffing requirements one of the pillars of this new agency.

In 2016, the Legislature created the new Department of Child Protection Services, and from outside appearances the agency seemed to be moving in the right direction. The following year, former commissioner David Chandler received a national award for improvements to the state system, and in his State of the State speech in 2018, Gov. Phil Bryant made a point of praising the agency and Dickinson.

But Lowry, in particular, has been public about her concerns for Dickinson’s leadership. In 2018, she also asked the governor to replace Dickinson. Gov. Bryant declined and asserted his faith in the commissioner’s leadership.

“We were optimistic about progress during 2015 and 2016, but since the new commissioner, Jess Dickinson, took office late in 2017, a very good management team has resigned and the state actually seems to be going backward.”