Elee Reeves, wife of Governor Tate Reeves, at the grand opening of the newest MDHS Resource and Referral Center in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Standing between two large, plastic trunks — faux branches and leaves crowding the ceiling of a former hotel-turned-government-office — Mississippi welfare officials announced the opening of a new child care resource center.

Mississippi Department of Human Services Director Bob Anderson, at the grand opening of the newest MDHS Resource and Referral Center. Anderson spoke of how this resource and referral center will be beneficial to early childhood development and child care by networking state wide with other resource and referral centers. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The colorful, well-decorated office, stocked with educational materials, toys and craft supplies, exists as a place for child care providers and parents to share ideas and receive training.

The language officials used to describe the new downtown Jackson center — “interactive space,” “lending library,” “resource and referral”, “network of support” — evoke images of the disgraced welfare program, Families First for Mississippi, that occupied the space before it.

The fake trees, previously purchased by embattled nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center using money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, embodied the nature of that now-defunct program: a façade.

TANF is the federal fund that states may use to provide cash assistance, what used to be called the “welfare check,” to very poor families.

But the new Resource and Referral Centers have a more defined mission to bolster and support private child care centers, the primary vehicle for early childhood development in the state, and they are funded by the Child Care Development Fund, not TANF.

“I’m so glad that we’ve been able to put this together. These are ideas that our child care division put together themselves. They designed this space themselves. Except for the trees, which were already here,” Mississippi Department of Human Services Director Bob Anderson said at the Wednesday ribbon cutting, eliciting laughter from press conference attendees. “They didn’t design the trees. We inherited those.”

The announcement comes from a department still reeling from an alleged $4 million embezzlement scandal that broke last year and an audit that uncovered the misuse of up to $94 million in federal dollars intended to provide assistance to needy Mississippians.

Officials made no mention Wednesday of what else they inherited.

Since Gov. Tate Reeves appointed Anderson to run the agency in March of 2020, the new director has implemented stronger procurement practices, financial controls and increased accountability among the department’s welfare grantees. Anderson also secured from the 2021 Legislature a $90 increase to the monthly welfare benefit — from $170 to $260 — the first cash assistance hike families have seen since 1999.

Similar to TANF, the Child Care Development Fund block grant provides child care vouchers directly to low-income families who need help affording daycare so they can go to work. But the federal government also encourages the state to use the flexible money on other programs, like training to improve the quality of care and promote early childhood education in private centers across the state.

Now, with the federal government increasing the child care block grant by $3.5 billion nationally in 2021, the state agency seems poised to redirect their focus to the child care industry, a major touchpoint between the state and families with small children, to improve early childhood education.

“Early childhood development is obviously important to me,” Elee Reeves, the wife of Gov. Reeves, said at the ribbon cutting. “What an amazing resource these centers are going to be across our state. I just think this is fabulous.”

Two child care initiatives implemented under former Gov. Phil Bryant’s administration also became defunct in Reeves’ first year as governor. One was Early Childhood Academies, through which the Mississippi Community College Board was supposed to provide training to private centers. And the other was a revamped quality rating system that replaced the former “star” rating of child care centers with either a “standard” or “comprehensive” designation.

The department is still partnering with individual community colleges in the state to help train child care center employees, though they are no longer called academies. The standard-comprehensive rating model was a dud, causing frustrations among child care providers.

Chad Allgood, director of the MDHS Division of Early Childhood Care and Development, told Mississippi Today that the most recent rating system expected quality improvements of centers but did nothing to provide resources to help usher that growth.

Mississippi Department of Human Services Director of Early Childhood Care and Development Chad Allgood. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

“Throughout the years I’ve worked in early childhood, I’ve seen a lot of change hit this industry. There have been some not-so-great decisions that have been made that have really, really impacted childcare providers in a negative way,” Allgood said. “…Knowing what childcare providers have had to deal with as you’ve seen these very large-scale changes, systematic changes, we don’t want to put them through that again.”

“When we go into their centers, it should be to help, not to point fingers and say, ‘You’re doing this wrong. You’re doing this wrong,'” Allgood added.

Allgood noted the particularly challenging time childcare providers have faced during the pandemic. At one point, as many as 70% of centers had ceased operations, Anderson said.

“We’re back to almost 90% capacity that has reopened, which is fantastic,” Allgood said. “And I will say that, in and of itself, is a testament to the dedication of our child care providers.”

For more than a year prior to the Wednesday ribbon cutting, the first floor office at 750 N. State Street had sat abandoned. Families First, the multi-million-dollar resource program for impoverished Mississippians, was previously located in the space, called the State Street Center. But it closed in February of 2020, just before the pandemic ravaged the nation’s economy and put millions out of work.

The former Families First State Street office sat empty on Mar. 18, 2021. The office, which was supposed to assist needy families, shut down shortly after Nancy New, the owner of the nonprofit, Mississippi Community Education Center, that ran it, was arrested on embezzlement charges. A Mississippi Department of Human Services spokesperson said the agency was in the midst of renovating the space for early childhood development programs.

At that time, officials had just arrested Nancy New, the owner of Mississippi Community Education Center, which ran the center. The nonprofit is now defunct and has not filed its required annual reports to the Secretary of State’s office since 2018, a year it pulled $27.2 million in revenue.

Nancy New, her son and employee Zach New, the nonprofit’s accountant Ann McGrew and the former welfare agency director John Davis all await trial after pleading not guilty to conspiring to embezzle more than $4 million in welfare dollars from the nonprofit.

“We got to take a sneak peek at the center and the incredible services they provide to Mississippians,” conservative talk news radio station Supertalk wrote about Families First in September of 2019, when the State Street center opened.

In reality, the center offered virtually no direct services and served very few people for the amount of federal grant money, tens of millions, the nonprofit was receiving.

“We’ve got a learning library … parenthood classes. We’ve got a computer lab where we can do our online diploma program,” Will Lamkin, operation coordinator for the Families First center, said in a promotional video produced at the 2019 ribbon cutting. “We have centers all over the state that are more informational based, where this one is really hands on. And it’s super interactive.”

The morning before the February 2020 arrests, during a visit to the center, Lamkin told Mississippi Today the welfare-funded organization’s main goal was getting people off of welfare.

Instead, officials were using the money that flowed through Families First to enrich their family and friends, pay for lobbyists, luxury vehicles, religious concerts, expensive getaways, publicity events with famous athletes and even a speeding ticket, a state audit published in 2020 revealed.

Families First for Mississippi used an existing network of centers called Family Resource Centers, which dated back to the 1990s, to boast a presence in all 82 counties.

The Resource and Referral Network, the name of the new center on state street, has existed for many years as well, Allgood said, but has not been well marketed in the past. Allgood called it a “hidden treasure.” He hopes the center in downtown Jackson will serve as a model for future network sites, two more of which the department plans to open soon.

“This is what we call the discovery zone,” Allgood said during the Wednesday tour, attended mostly by Mississippi Department of Human Services or other state employees. “This specific area, we want children, we want their families, we want child care provides to come in, to interact with the different areas, play with the materials that are on the shelves. This is a very interactive space.

Mississippi Department of Human Services Director of Early Childhood Care and Development Chad Allgood, at the grand opening of the newest MDHS Resource and Referral Center. The newest resource and referral center will network state wide with existing resource and referral centers. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

“We’re going to be offering, as Bob said, some pretty extensive training, what we call technical assistance, which is on-site, teaching early childhood teachers how to implement these things in the classroom. What we’re going to be setting up here are things that they can replicate using resources, using our make-and-take station.”

“This fun space that you’re looking at behind me, this is called our make-and-take area. And this is actually a place where teachers can come and make things … for their classroom,” Allgood said, standing in a room that used to be a free food pantry — containing mostly canned corn and green beans. Now the room is filled with colorful craft paper and shelves of bins holding glue, scissors and more.

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Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.