Mississippi kicked 29-year-old Keronique Davis off the child care assistance program, making it even harder for her to secure a new job.

Keronique Davis, a mom of four, bounced from gig to gig for years while she finished two degrees from Coahoma Community College.

The 29-year-old often struggled to juggle a job, online school and caring for her children. At around $2,000-a-month, according to costs compiled in the recent market rate survey, child care for her four children is well out of reach.

It wasn’t until last year that Davis secured some much needed relief through the state’s Child Care Development Fund, which provides child care vouchers to low-income parents. Mississippi’s federally-funded program recently received a $200 million boost from the American Recovery Plan Act.

Davis spoke with Mississippi Today in April and her story illustrated how much the state’s assistance meant to her, how the state would be able to help even more like her because of the increase in federal funding.

Then came her “redetermination” for the assistance. She was between jobs and didn’t have a check stub readily available to provide to caseworkers.

The state kicked her off the program, making it even harder to secure a new job. Once she did, she reapplied.

“Once I received the check stub, I went back in to reenroll. So that means I had to do the process all over again. And once I did the process all over again, they still denied me. They said I didn’t send all the information in,” Davis said in October. “So it was kinda hard this time around to actually get accepted into the program.”

Advocates for working parents say the seemingly endless red tape in the child care voucher application process has prevented countless women from receiving the support.

On top of that, Mississippi Department of Human Services is now saying it does not plan to use the extra $200 million to expand the voucher program. (This $200 million supplement to the Child Care Development Fund is separate from the $319 million the federal government gave to Mississippi for child care center stabilization grants, which the state has yet to administer. When the application opens in coming weeks, it will appear at this link).

Davis is just one of thousands of parents who have been kicked off the Child Care Payment Program in recent months, according to Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative’s recent survey of child care centers.

Mississippi Today spoke with the case managers overseeing the four regions for the Initiative’s Employment Equity for Single Moms project. The program helps single moms secure higher-paying jobs by helping them navigate childcare, adult education and workforce training. When a mother signs up, the program provides her with three months of childcare.

In the meantime, it’s often the case manager’s first goal to guide the mom through the voucher program to secure consistent childcare for the future.

“The first barrier is it’s absolutely too long and too difficult. It should be on a — I believe a sixth grade level is the norm. And it’s not. It’s very lengthy. It took me an hour and 15 minutes the first time I did it,” said Zaffron King, the case manager for the state’s northeastern region.

Pamela Reynolds, the case manager for the Delta, said that after her clients upload all their paperwork to the online application portal, the agency workers don’t review the material until three or four days before the application’s completion deadline. Then, Reynolds said, they’ll tell the applicant that paperwork is missing — even if she submitted it.

“They’ll say, ‘The check stub looks old.’ But you didn’t look until 30 days, so of course the check stub is going to be old.” Reynolds said. “So they’ll kick that out and say, ‘We need a new check stub.’ OK. But they actually don’t do it until three or four days before the case ends up being closed. They don’t give them enough time to get the new check stubs in.”

Reynolds said her clients have difficulty reaching anyone on the phone in the centralized state office where childcare applications are processed. There are no childcare representatives in the local MDHS offices. Reynolds said employee turnover in the office is great, so a mom might get a different case manager, unfamiliar with her application, every time she calls.

“Some of the moms just say, ‘Well, forget it.’ They get tired and they just, like, give up,” Reynolds said.

Mississippi Today submitted a public records request to Mississippi Department of Human Services for voucher application data in September. Instead of supplying the periodic reports that agency officials said they generate for internal review, the department created an original report for the news organization. (The agency attempted to charge Mississippi Today $400 for the report before the news organization objected and it waived the cost).

The report showed that out of 16,562 total applications the agency received from the beginning of 2021 to mid-September, it approved less than half. But the agency only actually “denied” 4% of the applicants, the report shows.

Most of the remaining applications fall under a category the agency calls “applications abandoned by applicant.”

There are over 4,600 of these applications, which reflect the parents who never made it through the process before their application timed out at 60 days.

“For them to say that a parent abandoned the application, when what really happened is that DHS just threw up so many obstacles and barriers and boulders and obstructions that they didn’t meet the deadline, that’s not abandonment,” said Carol Burnett, director of the Low-Income Child Care Initiative. “And that word is so offensive as a descriptor for what happened to the parents.”

The total applications in the report include new parent applications, those who did not currently have a voucher, redetermination applications for parents already on the voucher and applications to add a child to an existing case.

Many of the “new parent applications” probably reflect applicants like Davis, who actually had a voucher but had to begin the process over because of a denial during redetermination.

The state doesn’t currently have a good way to actually track this occurrence.

“If an application is abandoned, that doesn’t mean that that parent doesn’t go in and start a new application,” said Chad Allgood, director of MDHS’s Division of Early Childhood Care and Development. “And so one of the other things that we really would like to take a look at is, if a parent abandons an application, are they going back in and starting a new application? Or are they abandoning the application and just abandoning seeking the assistance?”

As for the division’s performance, Allgood could say that once the caseworkers receive all documentation, the turnaround time for when an application is approved is usually same-day or no more than eight days.

“We do monitor those numbers pretty closely,” Allgood said.

But that’s not the point of the application process most advocates are worried about.

Debbie Ellis, owner of child care center The Learning Tree in Greenwood and leader of a coalition of providers in the Delta, said it seems as though the agency prioritizes the computer system over the people.

“They are showing more consideration for their IT division and maintaining the built-in processes — the time sensitive calendars built into their software system — then they have for the working families who require child care assistance,” said Debbie Ellis, owner of child care center The Learning Tree in Greenwood. “They’ve shown more consideration for IT than they have for Walmart, Target, Kroger and these employers who are screaming for applicants.”

“They’ve made it easier for themselves and hard for the economy,” she added.

Allgood said that the department is in early stages of improving these systems to better serve applicants.

“We do know that the documentation submission process is somewhat of a holdup. And we do know that that’s something, we’re looking at some ways that parents could upload their documentation in other ways. We live in the technology age. We’ve even talked about looking at making it where parents could fill out the entire application, including document submission, via their smart phone,” Allgood said.

Many of the issues applicants face can be traced back to Mississippi’s outdated computer programs. Child care applicants must, for example, secure a physical letter from the child support office to prove they are in cooperation, even though both programs are run by the same state agency, which should conceivably be able to automate that portion of eligibility determination.

Last year, the Legislature gave Mississippi Department of Human Services a $5 million capital expense appropriation “to begin to look at these old, old, old data systems that we have,” MDHS Director Bob Anderson said at a recent budget hearing.

Anderson told lawmakers that the agency had hired a government consulting firm called BerryDunn to evaluate and assess the state’s antiquated eligibility verification systems and offer recommendations for improvements. BerryDunn, a Portland, Maine-based company, used to employ a former director of the Mississippi Division of Medicaid and the program manager for the state child support program’s Centralized Receipting and Disbursement Unit.

“We have four basic eligibility data systems, none of which are interoperable. They don’t talk to each other at all. They’re written in COBOL, which is essentially an extinct computer language,” Anderson said.

COBOL, one of the oldest programming languages invented in 1959, is characterized by a black screen with lime green lettering.

“We expect to get a report from them in early January about the cost of replacing all of our data systems. We anticipate that cost to be anywhere between $40 and $60 million, but we need to complete this study to know what’s in front of us,” Anderson told lawmakers.

In the meantime, Allgood encourages parents who are struggling with their applications to reach out to the agency, even request to talk to him.

“I can’t imagine being a parent right now. I can’t imagine how difficult that is,” Allgood said. “I absolutely respect and admire, especially these single working moms. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes.”

“If there are issues, please call our call center. It’s not perfect. We are expanding, but please reach out to us, email us,” he continued. “If they’re having a lot of difficulty getting through, they can send an email. They can request to speak to one of the supervisors. They can request to speak to someone all the way up to me if they’re not getting the help that they need.”

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.