Head of embattled child protection agency resigns

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Mississippi Child Protection Services executive director Jess Dickinson addresses members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee during hearings in Jackson Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017.

After two years leading Child Protection Services, which has struggled to meet the settlement requirements of a long-standing federal lawsuit, Commissioner Jess Dickinson announced his resignation on Tuesday.

In 2017, Gov. Phil Bryant hand-picked Dickinson, a former state Supreme Court justice, to replace retiring commissioner David Chandler. Chandler had been the first person to lead the new agency, which the Legislature spun off from the Department of Human Services as a condition of Olivia Y., the 2004 lawsuit which completely remade Mississippi’s child welfare system.

“I commend Justice Jess Dickinson for his two & a half years of service as Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Child Protective Services. Under his leadership, CPS has made significant improvements like implementing measures to keep the family intact whenever safely possible and thereby reducing the number of children in care by nearly 2000. At the same time, CPS more than doubled the annual number of adoptions,” Bryant said in a tweet Tuesday afternoon. 

During Dickinson’s time at Child Protection Services, the agency vastly reduced the number of children in foster care from a high of over 6,100 in July 2017 to its current number of fewer than 4,400. Adoptions more than doubled, from just over 300 in 2017 to 657 in 2019.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Mississippi Child Protection Services executive director Jess Dickinson addresses members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee during hearings in Jackson Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017.

But the specter of the Olivia Y. lawsuit, in which six children in Mississippi’s foster care system sued the state for neglect, has cast a long shadow over Dickinson’s tenure at the agency. One part of the settlement agreement, which has been revised three times because of the state’s failure to meet its demands, requires the agency to vastly reduce the caseloads of its front-line staff, responsible for working directly with families and children. While the agency did reduce those numbers, it has never met the lawsuit’s standards.

In 2018, frustrated by this administration’s failure to develop a plan to address the court’s concerns, Marcia Lowry, the plaintiff’s attorney, asked Bryant to replace Dickinson, arguing the leader lacked a clear vision or strategy. When Bryant ignored the request, the plaintiffs filed a motion to hold the state in contempt. That motion is still pending.

“This has been a disorganized and poorly run agency for a very long time and has never been in compliance with any consent decree the state has issued,” Lowry told Mississippi Today last week. “But we did feel the people who are running the agency under Chandler were making a real effort to comply. We don’t feel that now.”

Dickinson did attempt to give staff an incentive to stay but successfully lobbying lawmakers in late 2017 for a raise for frontline staff. In January of 2018, lawmakers complied, raising the introductory salary for new hires from $26,000 to $30,000.

But turnover continued to soar, hitting 30 percent in 2019, a nine percent increase over the year before, according to a report released last week from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review. The same report also showed that overall turnover increased to 15 percent in 2019.

“It’s a difficult job, but a high turnover is not the nature of the job,” Lowry said last week. “People don’t stay with an agency that is being run poorly.”

When asked last week about the increase in turnover even after the raise, the agency initially blamed last year’s salary increase, which only went to new hires, for demoralizing existing staff who did not get a raise.

“Raising the entry level pay had the unintended effect of placing brand new employees on the same pay level as their MDCPS peers who have been employed and working in the trenches for years. (It appears this is where we are now losing employees.),” said Communications Director Lea Anne Brandon in an email.

They also blamed the ongoing negative publicity surrounding the Olivia Y. lawsuit for hurting employee morale.

“MDCPS is further convinced that, when looking at our turnover numbers through the past year and in talking with our frontline employees statewide, that the negative impact of the ongoing Olivia Y litigation – especially the negative publicity brought about by the most recent legal action/contempt motion this past spring – has dramatically lowered employee morale and damaged the organizational health of the agency,” Brandon said.

The agency also questioned the accuracy of the data used in the PEER report, but did not specify what was inaccurate. Child Protection Services provided the data that PEER used in its report.

Given the increase in turnover, Brandon told Mississippi Today last week that the agency would be seeking an additional $13 million appropriation from the legislature in 2020 to raise the salaries of existing staff who had not received the earlier raise.

During his two years in office, Dickinson had raised the ire of lawmakers by asking for large appropriations, often with little warning.

In January of 2018, Dickinson surprised members of the Senate Appropriations Committee by announcing that the agency, which has an annual budget of approximately $200 million, was facing a $38 million deficit.

“It’s just kind of blown us away,” said then-Senate Appropriations Chair Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, who learned about the shortfall only days before Dickinson met with the committee, though the chief told lawmakers he had learned of it months before. “I’ve never seen something like that happen.”

With help from the Department of Human Services, lawmakers ultimately whittled the appropriation down to $12 million, but the stigma that Dickinson may not have been a proper steward of state dollars followed him into the 2019 session, when lawmakers grilled him over an additional $26 million request to comply with the Olivia Y. settlement requirements.

Plaintiffs attorneys, meanwhile, had remained critical of Dickinson’s leadership, charging the commissioner with a lack of organization and strategy.

“I think that he has not paid attention at all to what he needs to accomplish in order to improve the child welfare system. I think he’s taken a narrow view of what’s necessary and he has not succeeded in most of the requirements of the court order, and that’s well beyond the caseload recommendation,” Lowry said on Tuesday.

“I think it’s very discouraging because the administration prior to Dickinson had real ambitions to prioritize the child welfare system, and I think that’s a real tragedy.”